Florida could shut down elephant rides

Read the original article by Stephen Hudak at orlandosentinel.com here.

Proposed new rules for elephant rides could force Florida operators to pack their trunks, said the owner of Elephant Walk, who has saddled pachyderms for 50 years.

“It will impose needless, heavy restrictions that will severely impact the very few of us left,” Franklin Murray said in a phone interview from Maryland, where he is at a Renaissance festival offering rides on Annette, his 45-year-old Asian elephant. “They’re trying to do with regulation what they couldn’t do with legislation all under the guise of public safety.”

Animal-welfare advocates are pushing for a ban on elephant rides in Florida, according to a memo authored by Col. Curtis Brown, FWC’s director of law enforcement.

“Elephant rides have a long-standing history in Florida,” Brown wrote in the document provided to wildlife commissioners. “In recent years elephant rides have become more of a polarizing topic between those involved in the industry and humane interest groups. These groups have pushed for the ban of elephant rides in Florida and across the nation.”

The agency’s governing board, which meets Oct. 2 and 3 in Cape Canaveral, will consider clarifying the existing rule’s language and adding new rules for licensees who allow people to ride on the Earth’s largest land animal. The proposed changes include a ban on the use of any elephant that has previously caused a death or serious injury.

Other changes require experienced handlers and the use of a barrier and boundary to prevent a bystander from having contact with an elephant at a public event.

Licensees also would be required to notify the FWC in advance when an elephant ride is planned outside of a licensed facility.

To ensure public safety, rules also mandate that a “tethering device” and a firearm shall be present at all sites where elephant rides are available.

Five licensees provide rides in Florida, using a total of 10 elephants, according to FWC records. Two are based in other states.

Murray, based in Archer, near Gainesville, blamed animal-rights groups for the proposed changes to the state Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission’s rules.

His daughter, Lauryn Murray, maintains a Facebook page titled The Walking Elephant in which she defends her family’s care and treatment of Annette, who performs under the name Essex.

In addition to Murray, the Florida-based operators are Brian Franzen of Bushnell, who has worked with Carson & Barnes Circus, and Jean “Tarzan” Zerbini of Williston.

Zerbini, who describes himself in a license application as “the eighth generation of his family” to train animals for circuses, uses three Asian elephants for rides.

The animals, named Shelly, Marie and Roxy, are boarded at Two Tails Ranch in Williston, about 100 miles northwest of Orlando.

Two Tails is run by his daughter, Patricia, formerly head trainer for her father’s shows with Circus Krone in Germany and the now-defunct Ringling Brothers Circus.

Two Tails charges $40 for an elephant ride plus $20 admission.

The out-of-state operators include Timothy Friscia of Hugo, Okla., and Larry Carden of Missouri, a former Ringling Brothers Circus trainer.

Friscia, 57, has worked with elephants since he was 17 and brought three Asian elephants to Silver Spur Arena in Kissimmee in May with Carson & Barnes Circus.

The pachyderms are named Chang, Isla and Lulu, and are kept behind an electrified fence, according to state records.

Carden said he already adheres to more stringent rules imposed by the USDA. He criticized the proposed new rules as “a way to jack with people working with animals.”

Children ride an elephant ride at the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus in DeLand in this undated newspaper photo.
Children ride an elephant ride at the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus in DeLand in this undated newspaper photo. (KIM MACDONALD / XX)

Florida requires a license for public exhibition or sale of Class I wildlife, a category that includes elephants and crocodiles as well as lions, tigers and bears.

The proposed new rules also include guidelines for private elephant rides.

While elephant rides are offered to the public at circuses and at fairs, private rides are sometimes staged at weddings and corporate events.

Animal rights groups have long decried elephant rides of any kind, calling them inhumane and dangerous to both the elephant and rider.

“As eyewitness investigations have repeatedly shown, elephants used for human entertainment are commonly stolen from their mothers and herds as babies and beaten mercilessly to break their spirits and make them fearful and submissive,” according to the website of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “True [elephant] sanctuaries never buy, sell, trade, breed, exploit, or profit from elephants. They never use bullhooks or punish elephants in other ways even out of tourists’ sight, and they don’t force animals who naturally avoid humans into close contact with them.”

FWC held seven public workshops in the state over the last 18 months to get public comment on elephant rides.

Many of the 1,200 comments called for an outright ban, Brown wrote in his memo.

“But there was also strong input from individuals requesting that rides continue without rule changes,” he noted.

Over 3,000 elephants are currently used as tourist attractions in Asia, according to the World Animal Protection, which alleges many of the large animals are held in inappropriate conditions including being tethered day and night to 10-foot chains.

Recently the British Travel Association, a trade group for travel agencies in the United Kingdom, released updated guidelines for its member that deemed as unacceptable any activities that include interacting with an elephant without a barrier. The policy urges agencies to cut ties with companies selling elephant rides as an “experience.”

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