By Edward Sifuentes
DEL MAR — The company that offers elephant rides at the San Diego County Fair is no longer certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a change that could factor into the fair board’s decision later this year on whether to continue the rides beyond the 2014 summer season.
Animal rights activists have for years urged the fair to sever ties with Have Trunk Will Travel, a Perris-based company that operates the elephant rides during the fair’s annual seven-week run. Fair officials had already planned to revisit the issue after this year’s fair wraps up.
Activists say their case is stronger because the company has parted ways with the association, which accredits most of the country’s leading zoos and aquariums, including the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park and SeaWorld.
Have Trunk Will Travel chose not to seek renewed certification because the association has a new policy that requires accredited institutions to limit contact between elephants and humans — a stance that’s inconsistent with the company’s work, said Have Trunk Will Travel’s co-owner Kari Johnson. The company’s elephants are hired out for rides, TV commercials and feature films.
According to the policy, elephant care providers “shall not share the same unrestricted space with elephants, except in certain, well-defined circumstances.”
“Their policies are no longer conductive to the good work we are able to do for elephants in terms of our breeding program, conservation efforts and ambassadorship,” Johnson said.
She said the company is now accredited by the Zoological Association of America.
The board of the 22nd District Agricultural Association — the agency that runs the state-owned fairgrounds — said again last week that it will revisit the elephant rides after the fair’s 2014 season.
This week, board Vice President David Watson — who has long opposed the rides — said he wants the attraction discontinued.
“It‘s unfortunate that Have Trunk Will Travel has withdrawn from the AZA,” Watson said. “AZA is the leading accreditation institution for zoos and aquariums and sets the highest standards for humane and ethical treatment of animals.”
Watson was on the losing end of a fair board vote in 2011, when the panel decided 4-3 to keep the rides through 2014, until the AZA developed and implemented its new guidelines.
Director David Lizerbram said Tuesday he also wants to discontinue the rides.
“I’ve always come out against the elephant rides and my position has not changed,” Lizerbram said.
Another director, former board President Adam Day, said he’s not sure how he’ll vote when the issue comes before the panel later this year. He said he initially didn’t “believe that the elephants should be on the fairgrounds” but added that the company has never had any safety problems and is educating fairgoers about elephants.
“I’m looking forward to having a full hearing,” Day said. “I’m going to keep an open mind when it comes back to the board.”
Other directors didn’t return phone calls Tuesday or Wednesday.
If the fair discontinues the rides, it would not be the first fair to do so.
The Orange County Fair banned them in 2012 and the Santa Ana Zoo ended its contract with Have Trunk Will Travel in 2011.
Animal-rights advocates have been urging the San Diego fair to ban the rides for years and several attended the fair board’s meeting last week to renew that request, citing the revised AZA standards. Some of them said allowing children to ride elephants was not safe.
“You cannot have safety and security as your No. 1 priority and continue to have elephant rides,” said Alison Stanley, director of the Orange County Chapter of the League of Humane Voters. “It’s not possible.”
In San Diego, Have Trunk Will Travel came under scrutiny three years ago when activists released a video they said showed harsh training methods employed by its trainers that were secretly recorded in 2005.
The video shows elephants being hit with steel rods and being shocked with a Taser-like device.
In a statement, the company dismissed the video as “sloppy and dishonest.” It said the video’s release was timed to coincide with the release of a film, “Like Water For Elephants,” which features one of its elephants.
“Their claims simply do not hold up under closer and unprejudiced inspection by experts,” according to the company.