A planned, day-long protest of Elephant Encounters greeted visitors to the Durham Fair Sept. 28, as they walked down Maple Avenue towards the top gates.
The protest grew out of a petition asking the Durham Fair Association to cancel Elephant Encounters, a trained elephant show booked to make its first appearance at the 94th annual Durham Fair. The petition, organized by Rachel Mann of Durham, eventually collected over 3,000 signatures but failed to persuade the DFA, which voted to continue with the show by a 59-12 vote of its directors on Aug. 14.
Mann said that the protest was the result of the petition’s supporters looking for a peaceful way to register their opposition to the use of elephants for entertainment. “We’re members of the community,” said Jen Kinzel, of Durham, one of the protest’s organizers. “We don’t want to give it a black eye.”
Many protesters said that they supported the fair in general and in the past. “We love the fair, just not this act,” Terry Oakes Bourret, of Durham, repeated to the stream of fairgoers.
“We’re just here to protest Elephant Encounters, not the fair itself,” said Lauri Buccieri, of New Britain, who said she comes to the fair every year.
Most protesters stood silently and let their signs do the talking. Preprinted signs read “Say no to Elephant Encounter at the Durham Fair.” One handmade sign displayed a bull hook labeled “Elephant Training Weapon.”
One man in the protest drew some laughs from fairgoers with his sign which read, “I gave up fried dough for the elephants.”
Most of the crowd, flowing in from Main Street parking lots and buses, walked past without comment. Some expressed support with thank yous and thumbs up, while others made negative comments or jokes. In the afternoon, one man told the protesters he planned to ride the elephants and another said he would eat the elephants. Although elephant rides have been a part of Elephant Encounters, rides were not offered at the Durham Fair.
“Some people say stupid things...but more (are) good than bad,” said Julie Beaumont, of Hamden.
The protest lasted from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and with approximately 20 to 30 people participating at various times.
Interviewed before the fair by the Town Times, Bill Morris, owner of Elephant Encounters, said that opposition to his show did not happen in other places. “I’m going to tell you why. We’re staying in the Midwest and the people out here are cattle people and animal people. They won’t put up with that crap,” Morris said.
Elephant Encounters has faced protesters before in other places, including Maine where Morris’ performance with the Shriner’s Circus led to a failed attempt to ban elephants from the state.
On the Sunday of the fair, Morris refused to comment on the protest but said he was happy with the Durham Fair. “It’s a fantastic fair. People have treated us like kings here and because of all the controversy I didn’t expect it,” Morris said.
Morris said that the fairgoers gave him a positive reception with no trouble or controversy at his area of the fair. The shows have been full all weekend, Morris said, without even standing room in the crowds.
Noting the crowded shows, Morris himself raised the idea of the DFA directors who voted to cancel the show. “How about those 12 who voted against me?” Morris asked. “Eat crow.”
One man, after paying the extra fee for a family picture with Cora the elephant, sought out Morris inside the ring to shake his hand. “Thanks for coming. See you next year,” the man said.
Asked about next year, Morris said, “Definitely. If I’m asked, I’ll be back.”
The Durham Fair’s Marketing Coordinator, Debbie Huscher, said by e-mail that planning for the 2014 fair would not begin until December. Regarding the protest, Huscher wrote, “The protest was peaceful and people could make their decision if they wanted to enjoy the Elephant Encounter or see all the other things the fair had to offer.”
During the show, Cora performed tricks like blowing on a harmonica and moving to Morris’ commands. During one evening performance, she smashed watermelons.
Regarding the show, Kinzel asked, “Sure they’re docile now, but how do you think they got that way?”
While much of the opposition has been to elephant acts in general, some has been specifically directed at Morris’ business and Cora, who is one of the oldest performing elephants in the country, if not the oldest. Speaking of Cora’s age at the protest, Lili Kinsman of Durham said, “I think he’s trying to squeeze every dime out of her.”
Morris’ shows in Connecticut did not diminish that part of the controversy. Morris told audiences at each show that Cora is 52. Morris also told media outlets including the Town Times that he acquired Cora when she was two. A placard greeting fairgoers at the Elephant Encounters exhibit said that Cora has been in the Morris family since 1960, putting her at 55 instead of 52.
Media reports using Morris as a source, including the Bangor Daily News and Charleston’s Post and Courier, put Cora’s age at 44 in 2001 and 47 in 2004, also putting her at 56. Estimates of a Asian elephant’s average lifespan can vary wildly, but zoos consider their elephant populations elderly when they get to 50.
Cora’s retirement was on the mind of many at the protest. “Sanctuary for Cora and Shannon” read one sign. Bourret, who like Mann and Kinzel was a constant presence at the protest, said she was turning over the money she made this year parking vendor cars to the Tennessee’s The Elephant Sanctuary for retired elephants.