Elephants are one of the world’s most awe-inspiring animals, and at the same time, one of the world’s most vulnerable. Oakland’s City Council is currently considering an ordinance that would ban the use of weapons against elephants in the city, including pitchforks, baseball bats, and axe handles. But why? Are Oakland’s elephants being jabbed by pitchfork-wielding mobs? No, just bullhook-wielding circus trainers.
Circuses control and train elephants through violence and intimidation with an implement called a bullhook. A bullhook is a heavy baton with a sharp metal hook and point on one end. Bullhooks are used by circuses to teach elephants from the time they are babies that a human holding one has the ability to inflict pain on them, and it seems that trainers hardly let the elephants forget it for a moment. Undercover video has documented elephant handlers viciously striking elephants with the bullhook while they wait backstage at circus events. Watching the video, it’s hard not to think that the trainers are simply taking out their frustration on the elephants, and dominating them with pointless commands and bullhook swats simply because they can. One trainer tells a female elephant “F— you, fatass,” before repeatedly striking her. Elephant skin seems tough, but it is sensitive enough to feel an insect bite. Bullhooks are typically used to hook the soft tissue behind the ear, under the chin, inside the ear and mouth, around the ankles, and in and around the anus.
In 1991, a trainer wielding a bullhook was killed by a fed-up elephant at the Oakland Zoo. After this incident, The Oakland Zoo developed a weapon-free system of interacting with elephants called protected contact. The system was very successful, and the personalities of the elephants blossomed once they realized they would no longer be disciplined and dominated with the bullhook. Oakland was the first zoo to in the country to implement protected contact, and became an example for zoos nationwide. Protected contact is now required to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Oakland should be proud of setting this example, and it is appropriate for Oakland to consider protected contact as the standard for interacting with elephants in our city.
At the Oakland City Council public safety committee meeting on December 2, Dr. Joel Parrot, President of the Oakland Zoo put this issue in a straightforward light:
“Sometimes I believe that you need to become young again to get greater clarity. If we asked the children of Oakland: Would it be OK to stab elephants with this? We all know what they would say. But would we answer, we do it because we really need the money? If the circus comes to Oakland, they need to leave the bullhook at the gate. This bullhook is not Oakland. It is not who we are, it is not us.”
Oakland was a leader in removing the bullhook from use on elephants in zoos, and we should be a leader in removing it from circuses as well. Last year, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to ban the bullhook from their city, and Oakland’s City Council should do the same.
Mark Middleton is an artist, web developer, and animal advocate residing in Oakland, CA. You can see some of his work at http://animalvisuals.org.
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