By David Garrick
Have Trunk Will Travel says animal rights group complaints didn't prompt decision
DEL MAR — The company that’s handled the San Diego County Fair’s elephant rides for decades announced Thursday morning that it won’t participate in this summer’s fair.
Have Trunk Will Travel of Riverside County — which hires its elephants out for rides, TV commercials and films — has been criticized by animal rights groups who have accused the company of treating its animals poorly. Those groups have been urging the fair to yank the rides for years.
In 2011, the fair board — citing the company’s strong reputation and conservation program — decided to allow Have Trunk Will Travel to continue through the 2014 fair and then revisit the issue again.
Company owners Kari and Gary Johnson said Thursday that it was a “very difficult decision” not to attend this year’s fair, which will run from June 7 through July 6.
The Johnsons said it was primarily a business decision and not based on criticism about how they treat animals.
“It is always a big logistical challenge to balance the needs of our elephants, their human caretakers and all the other breeding, research and business factors involved,” the Johnsons said in a news release. “We’ll miss our fans, but more importantly we’ll miss the opportunity to share America’s elephant ambassadors with people to inform them about the critical plight of endangered Asian elephants.”
In an on-camera interview Thursday morning with Roger Hedgecock outside UT-San Diego’s Mission Valley office, the Johnsons said the criticism has been frustrating. The couple said the primary reason they attended last year’s fair, which also presented logistical challenges, was to stand up to critics who have wanted them banned.
The Johnsons say they treat their elephants well and educate the public about the how they can save elephants from extinction. Have Trunk Will Travel raised $5,000 for elephant conservation during last year’s fair.
Fair spokeswoman Linda Zweig said Thursday that fair officials played no role in Have Trunk Will Travel’s decision.
“We hope they come back,” said Zweig, noting that the company hasn’t formally notified the fair it won’t be back this year. “We’re not kicking them out. There have been a lot of false accusations about them.”
Zweig said she had no idea if fair officials would try to find someone else to provide elephant rides if Have Trunk Will Travel sticks by its decision not to come this year.
“We haven’t crossed that juncture yet,” she said.
The announcement comes shortly after the company declined to seek recertification from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums because the association adopted stricter animal treatment regulations.
Those regulations require accredited groups to limit contact between elephants and humans, which conflicts with the company’s approach.
Have Trunk Will Travel was banned by the Orange County Fair in 2012 and lost its contract with the Santa Ana Zoo in 2011. The company has handled elephant rides at the San Diego County Fair for the last 29 years.
The company’s decision was hailed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an animal rights group.
“Ending the elephant rides at the San Diego County Fair has been long overdue,” said PETA attorney Carney Anne Nasser. “The use of elephants in entertainment acts deprives them of their species-specific needs and instincts.”
Nasser said Have Trunk Will Travel’s focus on educating the public about elephants is disingenuous.
“If they were truly concerned, they wouldn’t use elephants for profit,” she said. “There’s nothing educational about watching an elephant walk in a circle all day.”
Fair officials didn’t take any action when the company declined to seek recertification from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits most of the country’s leading zoos and aquariums, including the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld. Video.