Help elephants, ditch the ‘bullhook’

An elephant at a Botswana waterhole. (Photo: Mike Dexter, via Shutterstock)

At a time when the news is filled with political campaigns accusing each other of exhibiting divisive behavior and tactics, there is one piece of legislation on Gov. Brown’s desk that is actually bringing organizations together. Senate Bill 1062, by Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) asks California to follow the lead of the cities of Los Angeles and Oakland by banning the use of a sharp device designed to inflict pain for the purpose of training or controlling the behavior of elephants.

Elephants are taught when they are very young to fear what’s called a “bullhook”– and those who wield them – by being poked, prodded, or struck with this instrument, and sometimes worse in sensitive areas causing them physical and emotional harm. Animal protection and humane organizations, conservation groups and California’s accredited zoos all strongly support Senator Lara’s bill.

Zoos have found that keepers don’t have to wield a sharp and potentially abusive tool while standing next to an elephant to get the animal to comply.

SB 1062 recently passed the Legislature with strong bi-partisan support. Last year he vetoed a similar bill because it made a violation of the ban a crime—and the governor has been reluctant to create new categories of crimes. In contrast, this year’s bill levies civil fines and allows for possible permit revocation for those who use a bullhook or similar device with an elephant after January 1, 2018.

Elephants in human care should be managed through what’s called “protected contact” according to professionals from zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and wildlife veterinarians. Under protected contact there is always a barrier between the elephants and the keepers; they never share the same space. Experts who have transitioned elephants from bullhook management say this recommended practice is safer and still allows for a full range of elephant care. Opponents of the bill insist that bullhook training is necessary to control an elephant. But zoos have found that keepers don’t have to wield a sharp and potentially abusive tool while standing next to an elephant to get the animal to comply. Handlers can easily use positive reinforcement from a protected distance to work with an elephant. Today, protected contact is required at AZA zoos across the country.

Elephants are classified as a restricted species under the Fish & Game Code in California. No one has a right to possess one – permits to do so come with certain responsibilities. SB 1062 is a reasonable imposition to place on those granted that privilege and the time prior to enactment is sufficient to transition elephants and businesses to a new management model.

Advocates and elephant professionals are united in support of this progressive legislation. And it’s heartening to see that many legislators are as well. Enacting SB 1062 is in the best interest of the elephants that call California “home.”

Ed’s Note:  Rich Block is president of the California Association of Zoos and Aquariums and executive director of the Santa Barbara Zoo. Jennifer Fearing is a legislative advocate for The Humane Society of the United States and other animal protection organizations.

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