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July 29, 2013 - The issue of having elephant rides at the Nevada County Fair continues to cause dissent in our community. Discussion is often tainted by misinformation and lack of solid facts, particularly about the Fair board meeting on July 16th where the board agreed to re-open the elephant rides topic. For those who did not attend and are interested in what actually took place, a video of the meeting is available online. There you will see knowledgeable and compassionate community members testifying against the inclusion of elephant rides at our County Fair. You will also see passion and frustration expressed by both sides.
In the lead-up to the meeting, the Fairgrounds CEO sent out an email asking supporters of the elephant ride contract to come wearing denim and light blue shirts to show solidarity. If the intention was to intimidate anti-ride elephant advocates, in some cases it worked. I personally didn't feel scared, but many people have since commented on group of (mostly) men dressed in the light-blue uniform who were lined up in the back of the room, arms crossed, displaying a menacing presence.
I saw a mother from my child's classroom standing silently, holding a photo of a chained elephant when an older man walked by and ridiculed her. Wordlessly, I moved next to her to offer my moral support. In the line of men, one spoke to another while looking and pointing directly at me. Such body language is generally perceived as threatening. This was not an environment of "thoughtfulness". This was certainly not an environment of respect.
If you do watch the video of the meeting, take notice of that first speaker. He's adamant in his support of the contract and says right away that he's not there to talk to the Board. Instead he turns around and yells at the crowd, asking direct questions and demanding answers from us. Twice he yells "Shut up!" at the audience. Meanwhile, the Board sits passively and allows the break-down of order. This is far from respectful.
People who support the Board's decision need to understand that there is a large contingency of community members who will continue to speak out against it. We will be peacefully protesting. It takes courage to speak out against the power structure. The Fair Board is not the victim, although it seems there is an attempt to characterize it that way. This is America, where we have the right to protest and the responsibility to hold our government officials accountable (the Fair Board members are appointed by the Governor). Democracy is not about loyalty to leaders; it's a participatory process.
There is real controversy about the treatment of elephants by Have Trunk Will Travel. People are speaking out against HTWT's involvement in our county fair, and many more are in quiet opposition to the Board's decision to invite them. Even though there is no organized boycott, it is common now to hear that "our family will not be attending the fair because of the elephant issue". In the past the fair has been a unifying experience for this community and the Board is failing in its duty to keep it that way.
One Fair Board member changed her vote out of respect for the community, because she saw how this issue is tearing us apart. She did the right thing. Several Southern California municipalities and venues have severed ties with Have Trunk Will Travel amidst protests and public outcry, including the Upland Lemon Festival, the Orange County Fair, Los Angeles County Fair, Santa Ana Zoo, and the cities of Fountain Valley and Sierra Madre.
A common theme in the pro-ride camp is resistance to change. But change is happening, and for good and valid reasons. In an article published by the New York Times on February 7, 2006, entitled "Bronx Zoo Plans to End Elephant Exhibit", Joseph Berger writes: "It's a shift occurring around the country. While once every zoo worthy of the title would boast an elephant, facilities in San Francisco, Detroit, Santa Barbara, Calif., and Lincoln Park in Chicago have either closed their elephant exhibits or decided to phase them out... In New York, the Central Park and Prospect Park Zoos stopped exhibiting elephants in the 1980's. The reasons behind the shift are complex and involve both the distinctive personality traits of pachyderms and America's changing standards when it comes to confining animals." The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has adopted the "protected contact" policy for elephants, and outfits like Have Trunk Will Travel will have to defy that policy or drastically change their practice of renting out their elephants for parties, movies, fairs, and other forms entertainment. Out of respect for elephants - those dignified wild creatures who will soon become extinct if we do not protect them - members of our community will continue to object to their being abused and used as an entertainment attraction at our county fair.
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