No Good Reason for Elephant Trainers to Use Bull Hooks

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By Dr. Mel Richardson

A tool of elephant trainers has been around for centuries. It essentially is a fireplace poker with a sharp point to push and a sharp hook to pull. And whether you call it an ankus, a bull hook or a guide (the favored politically correct term currently in use by zoos and circuses), it is in my experience all too often just a cruel weapon.

Zoo spokesmen, like Jack Hanna, claim the hook is meant merely to tell the elephant to come along, no different than me taking you behind the elbow and leading you. I asked a friend and longtime elephant handler: If this were the case, then why wouldn’t a wooden cane work? His reply was simple:

“Mel, if it doesn’t hurt, the elephant will not respond to it.”

At one point in my career, I was veterinarian for an animal dealer in Texas with 52 elephants under my care. The majority were 2- to 5-year-old African orphans from the elephant culls in Zimbabwe, where adults were slaughtered to control the overpopulation in the parks. I witnessed the brutality of the training or breaking of these babies.

I treated their cuts, lacerations and abscesses from the use of the bull hook. I have seen the skin over the lower jaw of a baby elephant actually slough off, due to the repeated “hooking” and subsequent infection set up by the trauma of breaking. It is called breaking, in that the goal is to break the baby’s spirit so that he or she literally succumbs to your every wish.

The hook is an instrument of intimidation and domination. Without this cruel weapon and the fear it engenders, circuses cannot make the elephants perform unnatural behaviors, such as headstands, walking on hind legs or balancing on balls.

Zoo defenders of the bull hook justify its use claiming it causes no harm, which is patently a lie. They insist the tool is needed to control the elephants for medical exams and treatments. They continue to advocate working elephants in a “free contact” program, using the hook to maintain their dominance. I have worked elephants in a “protected contact” system, in which I stand outside of the elephants’ enclosure protected by an iron wall. Through windows I can draw blood, examine and care for their feet. Critics claim the elephants will not cooperate in such a system. But experience has proven protected contact works and hooks are unnecessary.

You cannot control a wild adult four- to five-ton elephant with a bull hook. But if you take calves like Ringling’s Barack at less than a year and break them with the use of hooks, the hook then becomes a reminder of the trainer’s control over the elephant. YouTube is replete with behind-the-scenes footage of handlers “reminding” elephants about to perform, with a hook to the mouth or behind the ear, just for good measure.

Richardson, a veterinarian from Paradise, Calif., has more than 40 years of experience, observing, treating and providing care for a wide variety of captive wild animal species, including elephants. He is a captive wild animal consultant establishing Alliance for Zoo Animal Welfare, an organization dedicated to improving the care and welfare of captive wild animals.

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