In a move closely related to the epochal Mar. 5 announcement from Ringling Bros.that it plans to phase out the use of elephants in its traveling shows, California state Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) has introduced SB 716, a bill to prohibit the use of bullhooks on elephants in California. The cities of Los Angeles and Oakland passed such bans some months ago, and both of these actions were instrumental in driving the Ringling decision, according to the company's own press statement. Now state lawmakers and California's humane-minded governor, Jerry Brown, have the opportunity to end the practice throughout California, which already gets top marks in our annual ranking of states on the strength of its animal welfare policies.
Bullhooks are used to dominate elephants, specifically by using the implement to poke, prod, and hit elephants on their sensitive skin. Both ends of the bullhook - which is a blend of a bat and a fireplace poker - are used to inflict damage. The hook, which can be wielded ruthlessly, is capable of producing puncture wounds and lacerations. When the hooked end is clasped, the handle can double as a club. Just brandishing the bullhook provides a constant reminder to elephants of the painful punishment that can be meted out against them at the whim of their handlers.
Protected contact training for elephants, which utilizes a hands-off approach along with treats and praise, emerged about 20 years ago and is currently being used by sanctuaries and most zoos that house elephants. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) adopted new elephant care standards in 2014 that endorse and favor protected contact with elephants. No AZA-accredited zoo in California uses bullhooks on elephants.
The Oakland Zoo and the Performing Animal Welfare Society are strong supporters of SB 716, and are partners in the growing campaign to stop the mistreatment of animals in entertainment. The commitment by non-profit entities is matched by strong political concern. Other states and communities are taking aim against bullhooks and the use of animals in traveling circuses. There are pending bills in Massachusetts and New York and in cities such as San Francisco, Austin, and Richmond, to name a few, and at the municipal and county level in California, momentum around such measures is also increasing.
Last month's Ringling announcement was a thunderclap. That the biggest brand name in traveling elephant acts has turned around on this issue gives lawmakers all they need to know about it. It's time for the larger society to embrace Ringling's action, and not wait for two-bit circuses that use elephants and ship them around the nation while chained in trucks or trailers to replicate Ringling's decision. Most of them won't relent if there are profits to be had and more performances to be wrung from these poor creatures. This kind of routine punishment of elephants has no future, and it's time to rid the country of this vicious implement that punctures flesh and causes an 8,000-pound animal to cower in fear. The law must speak. We all know better now.
If you live in California, please contact your senator and urge them to support SB 716.