As human understanding of elephants has evolved, so has our treatment of them. Zoos decades ago freed these largest of land mammals from standing for hours in chains on arthritis-inducing concrete. Also gone from many zoos is the bullhook, an instrument that resembles a fireplace poker that is used to poke, prod or strike an elephant. Although the blunt end can be used as a lead for an elephant, the sharp end makes it a tool of coercion. The Los Angeles Zoo stopped using the bullhook in any manner in 2010. Similarly, the San Diego Zoo does not use it.
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council will consider banning the bullhook — or any instrument that could be used like one — for use on elephants in any kind of performance anywhere in the city. That would mean that elephants in traveling shows, circuses and other events could not be managed with bullhooks. This is a smart and humane measure and should be adopted. The council will also consider an out-and-out prohibition on the use of elephants in traveling shows and exhibitions in the city.
Chances are the bullhook ban will amount to a de facto ban on circuses that want to bring elephants to Los Angeles, because handlers generally use bullhooks to train elephants to perform. This ordinance will certainly affect the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which features performing elephants and makes an annual weeklong appearance at Staples Center.
Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros., said the ordinance would have the effect of “kicking us out of Los Angeles.”
Ringling allows trainers and elephants to be in close proximity — or “free contact” — and therefore the tool must be used for safety purposes, Payne said. He contends that the company’s handlers use it professionally and humanely.
The Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits North American zoos, has instructed all its members, by 2014, to allow only restricted contact between keepers and elephants — meaning there will be a barrier at all times between person and pachyderm. Although the association does not expressly prohibit bullhooks, restricted contact lessens the need to use them.
If the circus can’t come to town without bullhooks, then it shouldn’t come.