LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WHAS11)— Elephant rides could again be allowed in Kentucky under an amendment being considered by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The state regulation which bans the rides is in conflict with a Louisville Metro Council ordinance which permits elephant rides under certain conditions. Both the state ban and the local ordinance were enacted about six years ago.
"The only thing that's changed is that since 2005 there have been several more deaths and rampage elephants injuries to both children and death to seasoned professionals," said April Truitt in comments at the hearing. Truitt represents the Primate Rescue Center in Nicholasville, Kentucky.
Neither the circus or the council was aware of any state ban when the local ordinance was crafted, said Randy Coe, a spokesman for the Kosair Shrine Circus.
"Once we became aware of them, of course we are addressing them," Coe said, suggesting that the restrictions were enacted based on incomplete, emotional information provided to the state.
Coe encouraged a "fact-based" decision by the Fish and Wildlife board.
"The facts are that the rides have been in violation," Truitt said at the hearing. "The elephant rides are being offered, have been offered in violation of the state 'reg's.'"
The Kosair Shrine Circus hopes that the state adopts the Louisville rules, which include many safeguards and allow only female Asian elephants to be used for rides.
"They don't have calves. They are not in heat," Coe said of the elephants selected for rides, "They have great behavior records and the trainers are all experienced. And there has to be two (trainers) with them at every time.
So it's a very safe environment as determined by metro council and their experts."
Carol Buckley, the founder of Elephant Aid International, disagrees and also testified at the hearing. Buckley describes herself as an "elephant welfare consultant" and told the board that she was speaking for the elephants.
"Most of the time when we see elephants out in a venue, doing rides or performing, we see what appears to be a very calm, well managed under control animal," Buckley said, "And that is because of the nature of how intelligent elephants are.
"But there is a point that they will come to, where the stress of being continually dominated - they will come to a peak where they can't handle it anymore," Buckely continued, "And that's when we see what's called a rampage."
"You can't stop an elephant that has started a rampage," Buckley said.
The elephant rides once offered by a vendor at the Louisville Zoo ended after an African elephant escaped its enclosure in 1994 and seriously injured a Louisville man.
The elephant used its trunk to grab 28 year old Troy Ramsey, throwing him into the air and repeatedly slamming Ramsey to the ground and into a fence.
Ramsey's spleen and a portion of his pancreas had to be removed. He later settled a lawsuit against the city for more than $1 million dollars, according to a published profile of one of his attorneys.
"The zoo does not have animal rides," said Steve Wing,
Louisville Zoo General Curator, "We have not had animal rides since the 1990's and it is not in our plans to have animal rides again."
The zoo, however, does offer behind the scenes tours which allow visitors, under close supervision, to interact with some animals, including elephants.
"We have the best staff here at the zoo and they've been doing this for a long time," Wing said, "and we continually look at the program and see if there is anything that we want to change on that."
Wing declined comment on the pending decision by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A decision is expected in Frankfort by January. The circus comes to town in February.
"The people who choose to buy - of their own free will, they don't have to ride elephant. They choose to pay to ride on an elephant - that helps us pay for the circus, helps us provide for well over 15,000 kids every year to come for free," Coe explained.