Oakland Bans Elephant Bullhooks, Waves Goodbye to the Circus

Monday, December 22, 2014
(photo: via People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)

What would the circus be without elephants? Cirque du Soleil has been famously getting away with it since 1984, and so have other lesser-known franchises. The Greatest Show on Earth from The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus (yes, they are one Greatest Show), however, does not go on without elephants.

So, in Oakland that means no circus. The City Council has approved an ordinance, 5-2, to ban bullhooks―big spike-tipped, spear-like implements with hooks that effectively bend the will of multi-ton creatures to that of their much smaller masters. Animal rights groups hate them and won the political argument.

Oakland joins a small group of cities, including Los Angeles in 2013 and Miami, that have banned bullhooks. Austin voted for the ban the day after Oakland. Cities and counties in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, New York, Kentucky and Indiana have banned them.

The Oakland ban takes effect in 2017 and some skeptics think the city may revisit the decision in the future. More than 30,000 people attended the circus in the summer and the heavily-indebted publicly-financed Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum complex reportedly would lose $400,000 in revenues if it doesn’t come to town.

And that is just what the circus says will happen.

“(That) will be the last time we will be in Oakland because we can't perform without the elephants,” circus spokesman Stephen Payne told the Associated Press. Payne told City News Service last year, “Our elephants are the No. 1 reason people come to see the Greatest Show on Earth.”

Thomas Albert, vice president of government relations of Feld Entertainment, owners of the circus, characterized bullhooks as “guides” and “elephant husbandry tools” used by some zoos, according to United Press International. “Without this tool, you cannot have elephants at the circus. Period,” he said.

Elephant goads have been around for a long time. Cave paintings in India from the second century B.C. depict one of nature’s more intelligent life forms being jabbed with the instruments. The bullhooks were part of the ritualistic iconography surrounding elephants, which are a symbol of wisdom and intelligence in Asian cultures. The hook is inserted into the sensitive skin of an elephant to cause pain and convince it that resistance is futile.

Not all the folks who want circuses to stop bullying elephants with bullhooks applaud decisions by cities to ban bullhooks. Last Chance for Animals condemned Los Angeles after it passed its ban for delaying its implementation until 2017 and not banning all wild animals from circuses. Their partial list of circuses that don’t use animals includes: Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Ingenieux, Cirque Eloize, the New Pickle Family Circus, Circus Smirkus and Fern Street Circus.

They are, indeed, all called circuses, but strike many who grew up with lions and tigers and bears (and galloping horses, lumbering elephants and exotic animals) as another thing—it’s like comparing California designer pizza to the real thing in New York or Chicago. They want their wild animals.

–Ken Broder  


To Learn More:

California Towns Ban Bullhooks for Elephants (by Kristin J. Bender, Associated Press)

Drummond: Oakland Passes Bullhook Ban; City to Bid Adios to Circus (by Tammerlin Drummond, Oakland Tribune columnist)

It’s Indisputable: Bullhooks Are on the Way Out (by Jennifer O’Connor, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals)

Los Angeles Bans Bullhooks Used to Control Circus Elephants (by Dana Feldman, Reuters)

Abused Circus Elephants May Be Banned from Los Angeles for First Time Since 1919 (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

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