Aug. 12 has been declared World Elephant Day, which would normally pass without much notice in Durham and Middlefield.
However, a decision by the Durham Fair Association to bring Elephant Encounters, a traveling elephant show, to the 2013 Durham Fair has increased local awareness of the conditions of captive elephants. Rachel Mann of Durham picked World Elephant Day as the end date for her change.org petition calling on the DFA to cancel the show.
The change.org petition, which has gotten over 2,800 signatures as of Aug. 11, questions the practice of captive elephants as entertainment and accuses Elephant Encounters’ owner Bill Morris of failing to treat the elephants lawfully.
As of press time, the DFA had not canceled the show. The DFA made the following statement: “Additionally, we have been in contact with the owners of these animals and are convinced that they regard these animals as we regard our own pets. “
The DFA has a regularly scheduled meeting Aug. 14.
What are the laws for transporting and exhibiting elephants?
The Animal Welfare Act originally passed in 1966 and, since amended, details minimum standards of care and treatment for certain animals. Pets, cold-blooded animals, as well as animals “that are used for food, fiber, or other agricultural purposes” are exempt from the AWA. Exhibited elephants are covered by the AWA.
The AWA is enforced by the Animal and Plant and Health Inspection Service, which is part of the United States Department of Agriculture. APHIS licenses the home location of commercial animal concerns and also regulates the transportation and exhibition treatment of certain animals, such as Cora and Shannon, the elephants scheduled to be at the Durham Fair.
Critics of Elephant Encounters have drawn attention to Morris’ use of a bull hook on his elephants. Bull hooks, which resemble fireplace pokers, are often used to issue instructions to elephants. They have also been used by elephant handlers as instruments of punishment. Certain counties in America have banned their use, but they are not specifically banned by the AWA.
There are transport regulations regarding ventilation, sturdiness and cleanliness of the container, and other matters. The standards for transport integrity and ventilation are two of the AWA violations alleged against Morris in the late 1990s.
According to the AWA, animals can be transported in cages smaller than they are usually kept in as long as they can turn around and make “normal postural adjustments.” Some species that travel standing up, presumably elephants, can be more restricted in transport if, according to “professionally accepted standards,” too much space is a danger during travel.
An elephant in transport has to shift and adjust its massive weight with the movement of the truck or train. A United Nation report describes the situation. “It looks like the elephant is doing nothing but in fact it is hard at work physically and even mentally ... Such an elephant will arrive at the destination physically exhausted.”
According to Google Maps, it is 1,236 miles from Gibsonton, Fla., Elephant Encounter’s base, to the Durham Fairgrounds.
For the elephants’ time at Durham Fair, the AWA mandates enclosures large enough for “species-typical postures, social adjustments, behaviors, and movements.” Enclosures must allow animals to lie down without obstruction.
Elephants in exhibitions are often chained instead of enclosed and the AWA addresses this. “When elephants are housed on chains while not in transport, chains must be of sufficient length and arrangement so as to permit each elephant to comfortably lie down, get up, self-groom, and move about within a reasonable range. If elephants are kept unchained in a truck or railway car, each elephant must have enough space to make these postural adjustments as well.”
If animals are kept in enclosures that do not allow “adequate freedom of movement,” the AWA mandates exercise time at a minimum of once per day, separate from performance and practice time. The exercise time can be in a ring or enclosure or, for elephants, being walked.
The statement from the DFA noted that Elephant Encounters had all applicable permits. One of those would have to be from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which regulates performing elephants. Florida’s requirements are in some instances more lax than the AWA’s. For instance, performing elephants need to be exercised a minimum of once every 72 hours instead of every day.
Florida also mandates the enclosure size for traveling and performing elephants —1,050 square feet for two elephants —but that standard only applies if the elephants are housed there for more than 90 days. For shorter stays, such as at the Durham Fair, Florida’s law follows the standard of the AWA, allowing for chained elephants or elephants in truck containers.
Enforcement of the law depends on sporadic and surprise inspections. Exhibitors of regulated animals must submit an itinerary if they are away from their facility for more than four days and make themselves available should an APHIS or a Florida agent conduct an inspection.