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Oakland committee to vote on ban of bullhook use on elephants

on December 2, 2014

Oakland’s Public Safety Committee will decide Tuesday evening on whether to recommend to the full city council a ban on using bullhooks on elephants—a move a circus spokesman said could keep circuses from performing in Oakland.

The use of bullhooks, two-foot metal poles with a hook on one end, is controversial because supporters of the ban say they are sometimes used to beat elephants rather than communicate with them.

“If you are beating an animal to make money, create jobs and entertain people then that’s the wrong thing to do,” said District 5 councilmember Noel Gallo. People in his district, which is home to the Oakland Animal Shelter, urged him to put the ban on the agenda, he said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.

The ordinance in Oakland, presented by councilmembers Dan Kalb and Noel Gallo, would also prohibit the use of a pitchfork, axe handle, or a sharpened goad known as an ankus to control or inflict pain on elephants.

Bullhooks are mostly used to push and pull elephants, said Steve Payne, a spokesman for Florida-based Feld Entertainment, which produces the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s. Each bullhook is customized to the body of the trainer, he said, and not used in any way that’s harmful to the elephant. Teamwork, rather than bullhooks, controls the large mammal, he said.

From an early age, Payne said in a phone interview Monday, elephants are paired with circus trainers, who spend nearly all their time caring for the animals to develop trust and understand their personality. “It’s that bond and special relationship between elephants and people that ensures they are never put in a position where they are nervous or uncomfortable,” he said.

If the city council ultimately passes the ordinance, the circus known as Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s, which has performed in Oakland since 1922, may stop performing in Oakland, Payne said – because this circus would not use elephants without having bullhooks available, he said, and elephants are essential to the circus.

Payne defended the bullhook as an animal husbandry tool that is like an “extension of the arm.” But Oakland Zoo president and CEO Joel Parrot, who supports the bullhook ban, disagreed. Parrott called the bullhook a tool of “domination.”

“It absolutely hurts them where the public can’t see it, and on the sensitive places of the elephants” like the eyebrow, behind the ear and under the jaw, Parrot said in a phone interview Tuesday morning. Elephants will “do whatever you ask of them,” he said,” because they don’t want to be stabbed with that thing.”

Parrott said that in 1992, an Oakland Zoo elephant seized a bullhook and “stabbed [its handler] with the instrument.” The handler was killed in the incident, Parrott said. Since then, the zoo has separated the enormous, sensitive mammals from their handlers with a fence, so that there is no direct contact between the two, he said. Trainers now command animals only through the use of positive reinforcement, he said, and today, visitors can see elephants rubbing against each other, bathing in mud baths, and browsing as they would in the wild.

Last year the Los Angeles City Council adopted a similar ban on bullhooks, and Feld Entertainment has been working with the city to see whether some compromise can be reached, Payne said. “We are already inspected on the local, state and federal level,” he said. He also said his circus has been working with elephants for over a century, longer than anyone in North America.

Gallo said the ban does not prohibit the circus from coming to town, but is an effort to ensure that elephants are treated humanely. He also urged residents interested in the issue to watch videos of the misuse of bullhooks on Youtube.

“All the other experts have written to us that bullhooks should be banned when it comes to motivating elephants, and that’s what I’m moving on,” Gallo said.

Image of a bullhook by muzina_shanghai used under Creative Commons.


  1. Jeremy on December 2, 2014 at 11:22 pm

    Why are you wasting time and resources on a non-issue like this. If this is how you are spending tax-payer time and money then you should all be fired. There are much bigger fish that need frying in the city of Oakland!

  2. Olivia on December 3, 2014 at 8:00 am

    I hope this ban is approved! It is long overdue. Bring family-friendly entertainment to Oakland that is not founded on violence.

    • Sandra Tarbet on December 3, 2014 at 3:51 pm

      I am very proud of the Oakland City Council for bringing this issue to light. I DO hope the ban is approved. It is violent and abusive. We don’t need circuses that abuse animals.

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