Coincidence or not, a discussion about the use of bullhooks with elephants at Los Angeles City Hall is happening just a few weeks before Ringling Bros. Circus is set to arrive in town.
Los Angeles' Board of Animal Services Commissioners recently voted to recommend the city adopt an ordinance that would prohibit the use of bullhooks and other tools used in elephant training.
While a decision hasn't been reached and the topic is still up for debate -- a city panel is set to discuss it at a June 5 meeting -- critics say the bullhook, which resembles a fireplace poker, is an outdated method of training animals.
"All elephants used by circuses are subjected to abuse," said Carney Chester, an attorney with the PETA Foundation. "There is no excuse for these endangered animals to be subjected to this treatment for a few fleeting moments of entertainment."
Chester argues that training elephants with bullhooks not only puts animals at risk, but trainers have a substantial likelihood of death. "It's more dangerous than coal mining," she said. "Elephants trained with bullhooks, subjected to constant threat of bullhooks [are] prone to very erratic, unpredictable, violent behavior."
Banning bullhook use on elephants is not without precedent. Fulton County, Georgia was the first locality to prohibit their use. The ban, however, was challenged when Ringling Bros. came to Atlanta and secured a temporary restraining order.
Zoos across the country were criticized for decades over what some activists called inhumane treatment of elephants. However, many centers, including the Los Angeles Zoo, have adopted policies that only allow "protected contact" between elephants and zookeepers, which places a barrier between the animal and keeper.
"The Los Angeles Zoo does not use bullhooks in handling its elephants, and advocates have cited the availability of more humane means for controlling elephants," a motion from Councilmember Paul Koretz and Councilmember Tom LaBonge reads. "Given the City's commitment to animal welfare, banning the use of bullhooks for the handling of elephants at traveling circuses or exhibitions should be explored further by the Animal Services Department."
The city of Los Angeles has not reached a consensus on the issue and appears to realize that regulating use of bullhooks could be tricky. In an analysis, the board differentiated between public and private training using bullhooks and concluded that if the goal "is to take a step toward protecting the welfare of elephants when they are within the City limits, then banning the use of a bullhook as described in this motion would be consistent with that goal."
That means in private use bullhooks could be another matter entirely and not subject to the same penalties. Traveling circuses in particular consider the bullhook to be a necessary tool for training elephants that protects employees and the public alike.
Ringling Bros. website says the company employs a full-time veterinary staff and is committed to providing a healthy environment for its animals. The company also says that it believes banning animal takes away "a treasured part of the circus experience," but says it welcomes regulation to ensure the well-being of animals.