Opinion: Message to Gov. Brown: To protect elephants, outlaw bullhooks and the sale of ivory

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Elephants, the world’s largest land mammal, are a precious and endangered species. The California legislature has done its part in helping protect them by passing two bills—AB 96 and SB 716—that represent important milestones in how we conserve elephants and how we take care of them. AB 96, introduced by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) would bar the sale of almost all ivory in California. SB 716, introduced by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), would outlaw the use of the bullhooks in the handling of elephants.

AB 96, similar to recently enacted restrictions in New York and New Jersey, is part of a global effort to save African elephants from being poached into extinction. On average, poachers in Africa illegally kill an elephant every 15 minutes — 96 killings a day — and hack off the animals’ tusks for ivory that they easily sell on the black market.

The best way to stop the poaching is to stop the trade. And California is a big market for illegal ivory. Current state law allows for commerce in ivory obtained before June 1, 1977, the year that African elephants were first listed as being threatened. But it’s extremely difficult to tell new, illegally obtained ivory from old ivory. New ivory can be worked to look old. The bill exempts antique objects that are less than 5% ivory and musical instruments that were not manufactured after 1975. If you’re worried about selling your 5%-plus ivory antiques, you will still have more than half a year to do that. The law wouldn’t go into effect until July 2016.


SB 716 bans the bullhook, a tool resembling a fireplace poker that’s 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 L.A. Zoo no longer uses it, and neither do any of the zoos in the state of California that are accredited by the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums. The city of L.A. was the first major U.S. city to pass a ban on the bullhook and not have it enjoined or struck down. (It takes effect in 2017.) The city of Oakland also has a ban that takes effect in 2017. (The East Bay Zoological Society, which operates the respected Oakland Zoo, was a sponsor of the bill.) There are other cities with bans on bullhooks--or performances by exotic animals in general. In the wake of all those bans, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus decided to retire its elephants from its shows.

Basically the only way to manage an elephant and get it to perform, even in some innocuous way, is to use a bullhook—or keep it in view of the elephant so the animal knows it could be used. And any time an elephant is in the same space—free contact—with a human handler, that person usually has a bullhook at the ready.

A ban on bullhooks in California means no more circus elephants, no more county fair rides on elephants, no elephants carrying bridegrooms in wedding processions, no more using elephants in film and television productions, no more elephants in bizarre performance art pieces--such as British artist Banksy’s installation several years ago that featured an elephant standing in an L.A. warehouse set up as a living room.

And that’s all for the best. As our understanding of these majestic creatures has evolved, we know that they were not intended to be beasts of burden or performers of any kind. Elephants are trained for these activities only with a variety of coercive measures, most involving a bullhook.

Both these bills are admirable and smart approaches to animal welfare, and the governor should sign them into law.

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