The word “circus” immediately calls to mind images of people in silly costumes commanding exotic animals dressed in even sillier costumes to perform bewildering stunts. But did you ever wonder how a 170-pound man gets a 4-ton Asian elephant to do things?
Let’s take a closer look at that rod the instructors always keep in the elephant’s sight.
Known as a bullhook, or goad, in the circus trade, the rod has a sharp steel hook at the end, much like a fireplace poker. Training an elephant involves establishing dominance, and establishing dominance involves painful punishment. The animal-welfare organization Born Free USA states that “the skin appears deceptively tough, but in reality it is so delicate that an elephant can feel the pain of an insect bite. A bullhook can easily inflict pain and injury to these areas and trainers often embed the hook in the soft tissue behind the ears, inside the ear or mouth, in and around the anus, and in tender spots under the chin and around the feet.”
Proponents of the bullhook, such as Ringling Bros. argue that the tool is simply a guide and a widely accepted tool. Yet, if you visit the Ringling Brothers FAQ page, you will see there is no mention of the guide during training:
Q: How are the animals trained to perform their routines?
A: Our animals are great performers, because their routines are tailored to each animal’s natural abilities and individual preferences which we observe during their playtime. Reinforced through a system of reward and repetition, these abilities and behaviors are linked together on cue which ultimately becomes the routine that you see at a Ringling Bros. Circus.]
They also say that stunts performed by circus elephants are perfectly natural.
Circuses force animals to perform acts that have nothing to do with how they behave in the wild. For example, the difficult tricks that elephants must perform, such as standing on two legs, sitting on tubs, or waving their trunks, place a great deal of stress on their muscles and joints. Elephant experts and veterinarians agree that elephants will not voluntarily perform these physically taxing and painful maneuvers on command, over and over, hundreds of times a year without the constant threat of punishment. No form of positive reinforcement alone will elicit such unnatural behaviors.
Here’s video posted by Born Free USA showing what a bullhook can do, focused on a Ringling Brothers elephant parade through the streets of Austin, Texas, in 2006:
So let’s think about it again from the elephant’s perspective. You’ve been stripped away from your mother, tethered with chains and ropes, and frequently kept in a small cage. Every day, a man with a sharp metal hook takes you out of your cage, yells at you in a language you don’t understand and tugs or goads you until you get the gist of what he wants you to do. This goes on every single day with no foreseeable end.
Fortunately, legislation has been crafted to end the use of bullhooks in circus animal training. In fact, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to ban trainers from using, brandishing or displaying bullhooks and other prohibited tools, including baseball bats and pitchforks.
Click here to read about other approaches to barring the use of exotic animals in circuses.