Endangered Asian elephants were at the heart of the board's decision to nix elephant rides at the OC Fairgrounds.
Something big will be missing from the OC Fair this summer. Elephant rides, which have been part of the fair for 25 years, have been nixed.
The fair board voted 6 to 1 to get rid of the rides, which have drawn the ire of veterinarians, animal rights groups and elephant experts.
The private company Have Trunk Will Travel lost their contract with the fair after being notified 10 days ago that they were on the chopping block.
"It didn't make a bit of sense to me," said Kari Johnson.
Johnson said liability concerns were blamed for why she and her husband's company were let go from the fair after more than two decades.
"I think a lot of people are going to be surprised when they learn about this," said Johnson, who discovered from a blog that liability would play an role in Thursday's hearing.
She doubted the legitimacy of those fears, namely because her team of 6 elephants had never posed any problems on the road and the company has more insurance than the fair requires.
Still, animal rights concerns seemed to seep into the decision to stop the rides.
A television special chronicling elephant behavior inspired OC Fair board director Nick Berardino to examine how his own company was handling the endangered species, he said.
"I remember last year, right after I was appointed to the fair board, the fair had elephant rides and there were protesters there," he said. "So, I began to look into it."
That's when he suggested the board discontinue the rides, which cost about $7 per person and lasted for several minutes in a 50 by 100 foot grass enclosure.
Johnson's company would typically supply the fair with two to three elephants, and stay there for the five days a week that it operated before heading back to their Perris ranch.
"It was a month-long gig, and quite a chunk of income for us," Johnson said, adding that the company is privately funded and does not receive donations or grants.
The large audience, which spilled into the lobby, at Thursday’s board meeting was split on the issue.
Citing new research into how elephants react in captivity, advocates against elephant rides said using fear and "extreme human dominance" with such a large animal is unnatural and insensitive.
While others, including commercial animal trainers and singlular "nay" voter David Ellis, defended the rides by citing an incident-free history at OC Fair, coupled with a educational and sentimental value was proof enough to keep the attraction.
"We love animals elephants, and that's what we do," Johnson said, adding that Have Trunk Will Travel operates their own breeding program and is heavily involved in elephant conservation and research.
Supporters' "prime motivating factor is: we've had them for 25 years and we've never had an incident," Berardino said. "Now, given our action, we guarantee we will never have an incident."
More than 60 community members were each allotted two minutes to make their case in front of a packed board room.
Johnson also two minutes and was not asked questions by the board. She met with Berardino prior to the meeting, but suspects the rest of the board made up their minds beforehand.
"I don't think we could've done anything to please them," she said. Her husband, the company's co-founder and co-owner, was unable to make the meeting due to short notice.
Notable voices weighed in on the contested rides, including that of "The Price is Right Host"-turned-PETA supporter Bob Barker, who sent a letter to the board opposing the use of endangered Asian elephants for entertainment.
"Offering [elephants] for rides send the wrong message about how we treat our planet's rare and vanishing species," Barker wrote.
Have Trunks Will Travel is no stranger to the backlash that comes with keeping elephants in captivity. They had a similar issue at the San Diego County Fair.
That fair decided to keep the rides and revisit their liability worries in 2014, when new guidelines set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) will go into affect barring trainers and elephants from sharing space.
Bererdino cited those restrictions as part of his decision, but Johnson said she's not sure why the blanket rule would apply to them.
AZA "continuously recertifies us, even though we offer rides, which is in conflict with their rules against elephant rides at zoos," she said. "We're not a zoo. ... We have a higher degree of training than most zoos can provide.
"I didn't quite get it."
Thursday's decision makes the fair the second Orange County entity in three months to end elephant rides.
The Santa Ana Zoo put an end to them last December following allegations of elephant abuse, which were not confirmed by a city investigation.