TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A state panel Thursday approved new rules for elephant rides in Florida, including adding fencing requirements after rides have been offered within makeshift barriers such as hay bales and portable toilets.
Also, future ride operators will need more training in a field that goes back to when traveling circuses annually wintered in Florida, according to rules approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission during a meeting in Cape Canaveral.
The changes don't go far enough for animal-rights activists, who would prefer that elephant rides be phased out. But they clarify existing rules, said Maj. Rob Beaton of the commission's Division of Law Enforcement.
Dade City's Wild Things owner Kathy Stearns said elephants, including their health, are already regulated by the state. She questioned the need for the changes and implored commissioners not to accept the comments of animal-rights activists.
"Do we really have an issue? Are things really going wrong?" Stearns said.
Patricia Zerbini, proprietor of Williston-based Two Tails Ranch, expressed concern that "extreme" animal-rights groups could still exploit the changes. Zerbini also noted that elephants have been pack-and-ride animals for more than 5,000 years.
The changes were crafted with the input of more than 1,200 comments during seven public workshops and online. About 80 percent of the comments requested an outright ban.
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Kate MacFall, state director of The Humane Society of the United States, called putting children on the backs of elephants "reckless and irresponsible." She said more attention should be given to the public support for a ban.
"It speaks volumes about today's society and how things have shifted and changed in terms of what society expects," MacFall said. "And people don't enjoy or appreciate animals being used as entertainment as they did so many years ago."
The new rules require ride operators to have tethering devices and firearms on hand while giving rides. They also require increased training for operators, bans on the use of elephants that have caused serious injuries or deaths and fixed fencing that is at least 44 inches high around the ride area.
The fencing is primarily to keep people who are watching the rides from being able to come into contact with elephants, Beaton said.
"We've seen examples of folks using a combination of hay bales, Porta Potties, a generator, because all the existing rule says is a barrier to keep the public away," Beaton said.
Also, ride operators that had to show six months of documented experience in elephant handling will be required to have a minimum of 1,000 hours of free contact with elephants before they can work with the public. An additional 250 hours of training would be required with each additional animal.
"The reason behind the increased hours is so handlers will know the behavioral characteristics of the elephant and begin to recognize early on if the elephant begins to exhibit non-typical behaviors," Beaton said.
The commission reported the five licensed operators use a combined 10 elephants: nine Asian elephants and one African elephant. Two of the operators are from Oklahoma and Missouri.