Battle Royale brewing over ELEPHANT RIDES at the OC Fair. UPDATE – Victory! Rides ended; only Dave Ellis dissents.


It is  SO important for kids to be able to ride on elephants at the Orange County Fair.

How important is it?

Important enough to justify torturing these sensitive and intelligent wild animals, from a very young age, with million-volt electric prods and “bullhooks,” as shown in this clandestine video:




No, it is NOT possible to get these huge wild animals to stand still and behave with a bunch of human kids on their backs, WITHOUT extensively putting them through the torments shown above.   But thanks for asking about that – just the thought shows that you are a kind person.

The nice couple you see in the video tormenting the pachyderms?  That’s Gary and Kari Johnson, of Perris-based “Have Trunk Will Travel” (HTWT), and they’ve had a contract with the OC Fairgrounds for over 25 years.  Times are getting tougher for them, as they’ve been losing clients left and right, the more publicity their brutal but necessary methods receive.  So, they fight like badgers to keep their few remaining contracts – like the ones with the OC and San Diego Fairs.

Yes, the electric shocks are literally a million volts, or to be precise, 970,000.  And the sharp bullhooks that they strike/scrape them with in the sensitive parts of their bodies – eyes, ears, armpits, underside, genitals – leave scars and rips that are covered up with a special powder so as not to distress civilians.  And at night they’re put in chains.

If you ever take these elephant rides, or watch these shows, you won’t see the animal being mistreated, but you will ALWAYS see the trainer standing there with bullhook or electric prod in hand, in full view of the animal, just to keep it in fear and remind it of the last pain it endured.

But, still, it’s all worth it, I guess, because it is just so important for kids to be able to ride on the backs of elephants.

How ELSE important is it, for kids to ride elephants?

Well, it’s important enough to ignore the danger to riders and spectators, to ignore the liability incurred by a client such as the Orange County Fairgrounds.  Foot-draggers on our Board and staff shrug, “Nothing bad has happened YET,” and so perhaps nothing may, for some time into the future.  But the relentless PETA has compiled a list of 86 incidents – in the US alone, and from 1990-2011 alone, where elephants went out of control and became violent, causing 15 deaths and over 135 injuries.

The folklore is correct that elephants have uncanny memories and hold grudges, and sometimes suddenly can’t take any more humiliation and pain, and will lash out at their tormentor and anyone else who’s standing in the way.  The folklore is also correct that they are humongous.

But still, despite the inescapable cruelty involved, and the liability and risk of injury to humans, it’s still CRUCIAL that our kids get to ride on the backs of wild elephants, especially at the Orange County Fair!

Wait – did I miss something?
WHY is it so important for kids to ride elephants?

Good question.  The answer seems to be, if you listen to the arguments of the trainers and their apologists, the vague and unquantifiable value of “keeping contact with endangered species.”  Yes.  That is well worth zapping said species with a million volts and ripping said species’ flesh.  Poor endangered things.

Well, the Fair DOES make some money off these rides. Not ALL that much, really – $11,800 last year.  But I’m sure that’s worth taking the risk of having the OC Fairgrounds being the setting for the next disastrous rampage.

And there’s habit, and loyalty.  From what I hear, the Johnsons of HTWT can really open up a can of Charm-ass when they’re with the human beings who hold the purse strings.  As I’ve said, they’ve been servicing these Fairs for a quarter century now, and they get to be like family to longer-tenured Board members.

But last year, the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) recently changed its policies to prevent this treatment of elephants at zoos.  The policy change doesn’t go into effect for two more years, but it did give cover for the Santa Ana Zoo to get with the new humaneness and drop the rides for good last December.

So, really.  Now that you bring it up.  Maybe it’s actually NOT so important for kids to be able to ride on the backs of wild elephants at the OC Fair.  Hm…

2011 – a deaf ear turned by CEO Beazley and the Ellis Board

*cough* Beazley.

So, last year, animal rights activist Matt Rossell of Animal Defenders International (the fellow who was smart enough to contact yours truly a month ago) approached the Orange County Fair Board to ask them to consider breaking their contract with HTWT for elephant rides at that year’s Fair.  The Board, then chaired by Dave Ellis, listened politely, and one director (Matt doesn’t remember which one) instructed Fair CEO Steve Beazley to “look into the matter.”  And Dr. Beazley said okay, he’d do just that.

It’s hard to say what Dr. Beazley (who’s been referred to as a “failed actor turned Bad Actor” due to his complicity in the Great Fairgrounds Swindle) actually did after that.  Maybe he had a word with the Johnsons of HTWT, who re-assured him as they do that the elephants are very happy, that their critics are crazy lying extremists, and that the video doesn’t show what it seems to show.  Or maybe even less than that happened, maybe nothing.  All we know is when Matt checked in with him, Beazley told him, “I didn’t mean to give you the impression that we were going to actually conduct an investigation.”


Beazley continued in a similar vein:  “I’ve watched these shows and rides many times, and I’ve never seen any abuse.”

Well, of course not, Doctor, that’s not the kind of thing they would do in public.  And if it was just us strangers telling you that that’s what your friends do, you could maybe have an excuse to be skeptical.  But we HAVE SHOWN YOU THE VIDEO.   Morally vacant twerp.

Showdown coming up Thursday at 10!

So, at this Thursday’s 10 am Fair Board meeting, we’ve got all our ducks in a row.  We’ve got experts coming in to testify on the cruelty of the elephants’ treatment, and the liability the Fairgrounds has opened itself up to.  Of course the Johnsons are also going to bring in THEIR paid experts, to swear that the elephants are real happy, that we’re a bunch of crazy lying extremists, and that the video doesn’t show what it shows.

But Dr. Beazley is on his way out, and in any case I’m 90+% sure we’ve got a majority on the Board this time.  All four Brown appointees are with us – Nick’s my point man, Ashley is a female mensch, Gerardo’s the same guy who stopped the rides at the SA Zoo, and I think I can say with a fair amount of certainty that if Barbara Venezia’s husband doesn’t vote with the elephants he’ll be sleeping on the couch.  That leaves the five Schwarzenegger appointees, only three of whom – Dave Ellis, Kristina Dodge, and current chairwoman Joyce Tucker – have been around long enough to develop a rapport with the hinky Johnsons.  And as for Joyce Tucker – well, to paraphrase The Godfather, “Let me worry about Luca Brasi Chairwoman Joyce Tucker.”

So if you’re a betting man or woman, bet that the Orange County Fair Board is going to join the civilized world on Thursday by ending the barbaric practice of elephant rides.  So long, Gary and Kari Johnson!  Now, grab your Trunks and Travel!

[PS The Godfather / Luca Brasi / Joyce Tucker reference is not a threat; just an allusion to the fact that we got smart and talked to Chairwoman Joyce FIRST.]

UPDATE THURSDAY: Rides ended! Only Dave Ellis dissents.

Well, that was the biggest crowd I’ve seen at a Fair board meeting since the height of the outrage over the Swindle – like, 2009.   Was only a couple minutes late, and could not get in.  (Well, eventually, due to some friends.)  I assumed most of the eighty or so speakers were opponents of the rides, but as it turned out only about half were.  The Johnsons brought a LOT of friends.  It was strange, most of them had a sort of carny look.  One of them actually wore clown shoes.

It was interesting, to think about the arguments they tried to use against us.  Well, first of all, they all swore up and down what wonderful people the Johnsons are and how CLEAN their ranch is.  Everybody vouched for the cleanness.  And we were just dilettantes who didn’t really care about the animals like actual trainers do, and we have our own agenda whatever that is.

It’s always necessary to find a way to demonize your opponents, so a lot of them told stories about PETA, a group that admittedly has used some extreme tactics and takes some extreme positions.  I believe we had one speaker from PETA on our side, but 95% of us were just regular folks who followed the issue and cared about the elephant abuse, and the danger.  After a while I said, “Can we just vote LATER about whether or not we like PETA?”

They all criticized the above video for being “out of context” and “edited.”  Of course it’s edited – it’s obviously a collection of the most abusive moments from hours worth of footage.  But what sort of “context” would have made it better?  Of COURSE the Johnsons don’t spend MOST of their time abusing their elephants – that’s like saying “The clergy’s not so bad, the vast bulk of their time is spent NOT fucking boys and girls!”  Their criticisms of our video were especially funny once they showed theirs, a feelgood, narrated tour of their compound with a happy music track.

Many of them also warned of a “slippery slope” – that once the Board caved in and got rid of elephant rides, it would be only a matter of time before we demanded they get rid of horses, not let people train their dogs, etc.  Of course they ignored the fact that dogs and horses are domestic animals which elephants are not.

So, Nick took the lead, spoke of our “evolution” and how humanity eventually grows past things like slavery and elephant rides, and also brought up the dangers and liability issue.  The latter is mostly what Gerardo, Stan, Joyce and Doug LaBelle talked about.

Nick’s motion, seconded by Gerardo, was to terminate elephant rides at the Fair.  Dave Ellis objected.  First he pointed out that the Fair has a “4G” ride which has to be MUCH more dangerous than any elephants, but we put a lot of trust in the engineers.  Then he talked about how much he loves his wife and kids, and how they – well, except for his wife – love the elephant rides, and love having their pictures taken on them, even though it costs *grumble* ten bucks a pop!  He offered a substituted motion, that a subcommittee be formed (shades of the Swindle) and make the field trip out to the Johnsons’ ranch to see how wonderful and clean it really is.

And then came the moment I’d been waiting for – Chairwoman Joyce Tucker (who in the past had joined the rest of the Board in doing Dave’s bidding as though in a trance) told the story of how her 4-year-old granddaughter had almost fallen off an elephant – there at the Fair, just two years ago. Dave’s motion died for lack of a second, and Nick’s passed 6-1.  (Kristina Dodge and that young Persian-American fellow were absent.)

So, did you bet like I told you to?  Next time, listen to me!

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.