The Los Angeles County Fair is steeped in traditions, from its Ferris wheel to fried everything. But elephant rides are one tradition the fair should do without.
The Humane Society of the U.S., the country's most influential animal welfare organization, is against them, saying that elephants are typically trained for rides and other performance activities through the use of bullhooks and electric prods. The Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums "strongly encourages" its member organizations to discontinue rides in the interest of safety.
The elephants at the fair are supplied by the Perris, Calif.-based outfitter Have Trunk Will Travel, a member in good standing of the association. But its founders, Kari and Gary Johnson, are accustomed to controversy following in their elephants' footsteps. Officials of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who asked the fair to cancel the rides, circulated a video from Animal Defenders International that purportedly shows trainers from Have Trunk Will Travel using bullhooks and electric prods to get elephants to perform.
In a statement, the Johnsons said the video was six years old and heavily edited. "We stand by our care and training methods," said the statement. Kari Johnson confirmed that the trainers use bullhooks — "the pointed end is to push them away, the curved end is to pull them toward you." But she defended the company's care of its six Asian elephants, saying they are well treated on a 10-acre ranch and noting that the outfitter is involved in research on and conservation of the endangered species.
What's more, the company has supplied Asian elephants to the fair off and on for 20 years without incident or evidence of inhumane treatment on the grounds, according to fair spokesperson Leslie Galerne-Smith.
In our view, the video is beside the point here. Zoos, including the L.A. Zoo, are spending millions to create elaborate habitats for elephants, which are the world's largest land mammals. Some zoos have reevaluated whether their facilities can sufficiently accommodate the needs of pachyderms. Some are also instituting a policy of almost no unprotected contact between keepers and elephants, which is considered more humane and safer for all. At a time when the management of captive elephants is focusing on conservation and the animals' well-being, hoisting people onto their backs seems out of step.
The animal welfare groups, the elephant supplier and the fair officials all say they care deeply about elephant conservation. If that's true, there ought to be a way to allow people — including fairgoers — a chance to see and learn about these stately creatures of the wild without riding them.