On Thursday, March 22, the Orange County Fair Board voted 6-1 to ban elephant rides at the fair — effective immediately! Thanks to all who spoke at that meeting.
Have Trunk Will Travel, the company that had been providing the rides, also owns the elephant that was in the movie Water for Elephants. This company has been in the news due to shocking video footage that appears to show gross, inhumane training methods. These methods include beating elephants with bullhooks and electrically shocking them to get them to obey commands.
I imagine that the best argument for offering elephant rides at a county fair is because we humans enjoy this activity — we as individuals are in awe and in gratitude that such beautiful, massive creatures allow us on their backs. As a child, I rode several elephants. I have felt their steady sway beneath my body, stroked my fingers over their sensitive toes, and entwined my arms with their hairy expressive trunks. I remember grasping onto my mother’s soft hands as we walked away and telling her, “The elephants are so sad. Did you their eyes?” When I close my eyes today I can still see them — wrinkled and dull-looking, a bit like my old babysitter’s eyes after she had a heart attack and told us she couldn’t babysit us any longer.
Today we might argue that we allow this cruel pastime for the pleasure of the children. But if we ask children today to look into the eyes of these elephants and to tell us how they feel, the children will almost always respond with phrases like, “The elephant is sad,” “Is the elephant mad?” or “I am scared.”
It does matter to me how the company Have Trunks Will Travel responded to the allegations that they abuse their animals with harsh training methods. The fact is that the humane training of exotic animals is a very new field; shocking elephants in their genitals and beating them with clubs are the methods most experienced animal handlers are accustomed to using.
Most of Have Trunks Will Travel’s elephants are over 30 years old. That means that there is a high probability that these animals were trained inhumanely. When you train an animal with abuse, the animal does not have time to process new information; this leads to confusion in taking on new stimulation in the present and in the future. These animals can have post traumatic stress syndrome.
The elephants’ greatest sense is their sense of smell. Imagine the stress of trying to decipher all the smells at a county fair. Perfumes, unnatural foods, the rides, gas and oil … Can we guarantee that a smell, sight, or sound at a county fair will not bring back an old memory that will elicit an elephant to react into fight or flight mode? Indeed, all you have to do is Google elephant attacks and you will see numerous elephants exploding at zoos, circuses, and fairs.
What if, after 30 years, one of the Have Trunks Will Travel elephants just can’t take it anymore? What if an elephant just snaps and takes off with someone on his or her back? No company can guarantee the safety of onlookers.
Elephants are the largest land mammals on earth. They are designed to live their lives in the wildlands of Asia and Africa. Can we really convince ourselves that animals created to roam great distances rooting the earth and eating the bark off of trees — either as loners (the males) or involved in close and complex social interactions (the females) — enjoy carrying complete strangers around a crowded smelly fair?
Our common sense will tell us they do not. But most adults must have become so busy in their lives that they have lost their empathetic eye for sadness and anger in others. Or perhaps these same adults make fantasies in their heads that these elephants are happy — and that the younger generations also delight in this cruel, miserable pastime. This is not based on reality.
If you have any questions on this matter, take your children to see these animals live and up close, and ask your children, “What do you think of the elephants?” Then listen and take to heart their answers.