Richmond May Ban Bullhooks, a Sharp Tool Used to Train Elephants

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A close look at a Bullhook.

Richmond may see the end of the circus if it passes a citywide ordinance banning the use of bullhooks, a controversial instrument used to train elephants.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus attracts crowds of 50,000 to Richmond each year, according to Tom Albert , Vice President of Government Relations for Feld Entertainment Inc., a parent company of Ringling Bros.  A similar ordinance to ban bullhooks was passed in Los Angeles in October 2013 and will come into effect for the city in 2017. Circuses traveling through Los Angeles plan to tour in surrounding counties once the bullhook is banned.

“Make no mistake this is a ban on circus’ in Richmond.” Tom Albert said.

Bullhooks are used to guide elephants and protect audiences. The tool’s cane is made of fiberglass and uses a steel shaft as a negative reinforcement to punish the elephant or attract its attention. Critics say that the bullhook is harmful to the elephant physically and mentally.

“It’s a fallacy to presume that anybody using a bullhook will automatically hurt a elephant,” Albert said. “Or that there is an alternative tool for circuses there is not.”

Albert said it’s not feasible for Ringling Bros. to leave its elephants outside the city during its nationwide tour. Albert suggests using regulations to punish bad actors instead of punishing the entire circus industry by banning bullhooks.

Mike McClure has been an elephant manager at the Baltimore Zoo for over 19 years and is president of the Elephant Managers Association. McClure has used bullhooks and other training methods to correct behavior detrimental to the well being of the elephant. McClure called the bullhook a guide during his testimony to the Richmond City Council. When one elephant showed anxiety around migrating geese, McClure used the guide to attract its attention away from the geese, eventually stopping the elephants behavior.

“In this case the guide did not create fear, it helped me correct fear,” McClure said.

McClure also used the guide to help one of his elephants recover from an illness. The virus was highly fatal to elephants, “the equivalent of Ebola to elephants,” Mcclure said. The elephant had to be monitored during its treatment, which involved being given oral medication and blood draws. The bullhook was used to check every part of the elephant during its treatment and to get the elephant to take proper treatment.

“This was all done using a guide, not as the only part of the process,” McClure said. “But it was part of the equation.”

McClure’s elephant that he called a “3,500-pound patient that doesn’t understand English,” eventually recovered from the disease, becoming the 11th known survivor of the disease. “A ban on bullhorns won’t help or improve the welfare of elephants” McClure said.

Rachel Mathews, a Richmond resident and counsel to the captive animal law enforcement division for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the bullhook is used to abuse elephants until they perform unnatural and painful tricks.

“There only are two uses for this weapon, to inflict pain and instill fear of pain,” Mathews said.

Mathews said that all the spots hit with the bullhook are sensitive nerve areas on the elephant.

“As a former Ringling Brother’s veterinarian told me, don’t believe that it doesn’t hurt,” Mathews said.

Protected contact is the solution, according to Mathews. This elephant training involves using positive reinforcement like treats instead of using what she claims is negative reinforcement, like bullhooks. Protected contact requires a wall between the trainer and the elephant. Albert disagrees, saying that although an accident is rare, an elephant show without a bullhook is irresponsible and potentially dangerous to spectators.

If passed Richmond’s bullhook ordinance will also take effect in 2017, giving time for the circuses to adjust for the change.

Daniel Parker

About Daniel Parker

Daniel Parker is currently a student at the Virginia Commonwealth University. He has an associates in social science and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is a staff editor for Poictesme, a student run literary magazine. Daniel also regularly contributes to The Commonwealth Times, VCU’s school paper.