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L.A. moves to ban use of bullhooks on circus elephants

The Los Angeles City Council took action Wednesday to ban bullhooks used by elephant trainers in traveling circuses, becoming the first U.S. metropolis to outlaw a tool that critics say inflicts pain.

Voting unanimously, the council asked the city attorney's office to prepare an ordinance outlawing the use of the bullhook, a sharp-tipped tool used to train and keep elephants under control. Baseball bats, ax handles, pitchforks and other implements used on the pachyderms would also be banned.

In a concession to Councilman Gil Cedillo, however, the council agreed to give circuses three years to either change how they handle elephants or remove them from shows altogether.

Many in the standing-room-only crowd in the council chamber at City Hall were upset by the last-minute amendment, which Cedillo said would save jobs of workers who help staff circuses when they come to town.

After the vote, some in the audience yelled, "Three more years of torture!"

Actress Lily Tomlin, an animal rights activist who has long pushed for a bullhook ban, said the council's action should be viewed as a positive first step.

"We'd like it to be stopped this hour," she said at a news conference following the vote. "But it can't be and it's going to be done this way. We're grateful for any kind of movement at all."

Feld Entertainment Inc., the producer of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses, had sought to stop the ban on what it calls "elephant tools." Circuses remain popular despite the efforts of a "vocal portion of society" opposed to all animals in captivity, said Thomas L. Albert, vice president of Feld, in a prepared statement. Feld's herd of more than 40 Asian elephants performs in more than 100 American cities each year.

In July, L.A. Animal Services conducted 25 hours of inspections of Ringling Bros.' appearance at Staples Center and "at no time did it find any violations or problems with any animal," Albert said. Also, a veterinarian hired by the department "found no signs of abuse or improper use of guides."

In 2013, nearly 90,000 Angelenos came to the Ringling Bros. circus, according to Feld.

During the hearing, Councilman Paul Koretz said he did his own investigation about circus practices before asking the council to take action. He played a video showing a young elephant hogtied in a pen during training sessions.

In another scene, an elephant can be heard making sounds of apparent distress after an animal prod is applied to its skin by a trainer. Council President Herb Wesson cut off the video, provided by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, after a few minutes.

"Mr. Koretz, I believe we've seen more than enough," Wesson said. "I'm ready to vote."

In a statement, PETA spokeswoman Shakira Croce said the group obtained the video footage from an elephant handler who "asked that the world be shown what goes on behind the scenes to these vulnerable giants."

Los Angeles would lead the nation if it banned the practice, PETA officials said.

"The City Council has put cruel circuses on notice that forcing elephants to perform through beatings will not be tolerated," PETA Director Delcianna Winders said.

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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