On October 18th, an Asian elephant carrying a couple on its back lumbered down Twin Dolphin Drive in Huntington Beach, California, and onto the grounds of the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa. The jaw-dropping scene, which was part of the procession during a traditional Indian wedding ceremony, would have been awe-inspiring were it not tinged with controversy; according to Julie Toledo, a spokesperson for the city of Huntington Beach, the city’s Community Services Department was never informed about the pachyderm’s involvement in the wedding, and the city had issued no permits.
After a cursory investigation, city officials determined that the elephant was owned by Have Trunk Will Travel, a company that trains and rents elephants for educational programs, parades, rides, and movies – one of Have Trunk Will Travel’s elephants, Tai, appeared in the 2011 film “Water For Elephants” – though the company’s website explicitly states that clients are responsible for procuring all necessary permits. The General Manager at Hyatt, when questioned, said he assumed someone connected to the elephant had gotten all the permits and authorization from the city.
Not that the city would have issued a permit had the wedding party applied for one; in 2002, the Huntington Beach Council passed Municipal Code Chapter 7.14 which states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to permit the performance of any wild and exotic animal for public entertainment, amusement, or benefit on any public or private property within the City of Huntington Beach.” This ordinance was passed largely to protect animals – especially elephants, bears, tigers, camels, and monkeys – from “cruel and inhumane treatment,” according to the municipal code, though exceptions can be made if the activity is endorsed by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association or if it’s part of a veterinarian’s normal practice. Animals may also be used as part of a film, but filming permits must be issued by the Community Services Department.
Animal Defenders International, an animal-rights group that claims Have Trunk Will Travel routinely abuses their elephants, immediately contested the animal’s inclusion in the ceremony. Matt Rossell, campaigns director for Animal Defenders, says the issue is not that the wedding party failed to attain a permit, but rather that they chose to ride a dangerous animal down a public thoroughfare surrounded by untrained bystanders. “When you see elephants mixed in with people at circuses and they’re putting kids on their backs, parents hope that tame animal. In reality, it’s not,” Rossell said. “There’s never a safe way to work with an elephant in free contact where you can guarantee the safety of the people around the elephant.” Animal Defenders claims that large animals like elephants can only be controlled by their handlers who carry bullhooks or prods of some kind, and that most elephants are taught to perform using abusive and painful methods.
“There’s never a safe way to work an elephant in free contact where you can guarantee the safety of the people around the elephant.” – Matt Rossell
In the aftermath of the incident, the City of Huntington Beach released a statement calling it a first-time offense and absolving the Hyatt Regency of any wrongdoing. “We will work with all of our local hotels to remind them of our policy,” said Julie Toledo. It is unknown if either the wedding party or Have Trunk Will Travel received any fines for breaking the municipal code.