Stop Use Of Cruel Bullhooks On Elephants In Zoos And Circuses

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Originally Posted: 30 July 2010

Stop Use Of Cruel Bullhooks On Elephants In Zoos And Circuses

FROM In Defense of Animals (IDA)

1. Submit the online petition (below) to send a message to USDA Deputy Administrator Chester Gipson. Urge him to issue an Animal Care Policy Statement clarifying that the handling of elephants using “free contact” and use of the bullhook is a violation of the Animal Welfare Act and regulations meant to protect elephants and other animals used for exhibition.

2. If you live near a zoo that uses circus-style handling and bullhooks with its elephants, please call the zoo director and urge the zoo to make the switch to the “protected contact” system of elephant training, which only uses positive reinforcement and does not allow bullhooks. Click here for a list of zoos that use bullhooks and their phone numbers.





Sign an online petition

And/Or make direct contact:

Dr. Chester A. Gipson
4700 River Road, Unit 84
Riverdale, MD 20737-1234
phone (301) 734-7833
fax (301) 734-4978


he recent attack by a young African elephant on his keeper at the Toledo Zoo has reignited the controversy over circus-style training and the use of cruel bullhooks to manage elephants. IDA sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), asking the agency to issue a policy statement that says this unsafe and inhumane training method is a violation of the Animal Welfare Act. Please help convince the USDA to take this critical step toward protecting elephants and humans.

Circus-style training, also known as “free contact,” relies on negative reinforcement to train and control elephants. Handlers use the steel-pointed bullhook, a weapon similar to a fireplace poker, to prod, hook and strike elephants and force compliance with commands. Even when not in active use, the bullhook is a threat to the elephant and a constant reminder of the pain and physical punishment that can be delivered at any time. In this way, the trainer retains complete dominance over the elephant.

All circuses use free contact training, along with about half of zoos.

In the Toledo Zoo incident, video made available by the zoo shows that after seven-year-old Louie aggressively chased the keeper (who was not carrying a bullhook) out of his stall, the keeper returned with a bullhook, appearing intent on regaining control over the elephant. In the presence of the bullhook, Louie immediately becomes submissive and appears to cringe in anticipation of punishment. After the keeper hooks Louie, the elephant lashes out at him and he is gravely injured. (IDA only highlights this incident since it so clearly illustrates the purpose of the bullhook and the elephant’s perception of it; we hope for the full and quick recovery of the trainer who was injured.)

In an attempt to make the bullhook more acceptable to the public, circuses and zoos call it a “guide” and claim to merely “touch” the elephants with it. Some zoos have even aligned themselves with circuses, coming to their defense in court and at legislative hearings, including Oregon Zoo Deputy Director Mike Keele, who testified as a paid expert witness for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in a federal trial against Ringling’s abusive treatment of elephants. Zoos employees around the country have spoken out against proposed bullhook bans.

A progressive alternative called “protected contact,” used by about half of zoos, uses only positive reinforcement and does not allow bullhooks. The elephants’ participation in training sessions is completely voluntary. Because there is a protective barrier between the keepers and elephants, this method is more humane for the elephants and safer for keepers.

The Toledo incident graphically demonstrates that the purpose of the bullhook is to control elephants through force, and that elephants understand and fear it. It’s time to send a message that abusive elephant management practices have no place in our society - not in circuses, zoos or other forms of "entertainment." By protecting elephants, we also protect the people who work closely with them and we protect the public.

Thank you for everything you do for animals!