The Association of Zoos and Aquariums announced this morning that it will phase out the use of bullhooks on elephants at its member zoos, taking the United States a giant step forward toward relegating these instruments of torture to history.
According to an article in the Washington Post this morning, the AZA board recently voted to phase out the instrument’s use in routine elephant care and training by the start of 2021. It also approved a statement of intent to completely end the use of bullhooks except in emergencies and non-routine medical care by 2023. The AZA, the nation’s leading accreditor of zoos and aquariums, has 230 members and the decision will affect about 30 zoos that still use bullhooks to varying degrees.
Bullhooks are highly controversial instruments that resemble a fireplace poker, with a long rod, sharp metal hook and spiked tip. When used on animals, they inflict terrible physical injuries, including lacerations, puncture wounds and abcesses. The cruelty also leads to long-term trauma, emotional distress and suffering for the animals. Growing public condemnation of bullhooks has led to two states, Rhode Island and California, and more than a dozen localities, including the cities of Austin, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Spokane, banning them.
All circuses use bullhooks to train elephants, but over the years most zoos have switched to more humane and safer elephant handling methods, as they have discovered that positive reinforcement training for elephants in a protected contact environment is highly effective and reduces aggression.
Elephants, when allowed to behave more naturally and not coerced with dominance and punishment, form strong bonds with their trainers and are more likely to cooperate voluntarily for treats and praise. This allows keepers and veterinarians to more easily provide routine husbandry, perform veterinary exams and procedures, and administer treatments.
The Humane Society of the United States has been behind many of the successful legislative efforts to ban bullhooks, and we continue to press for ending their use in other U.S. states and localities. In India, the use of bullhooks on elephants has been banned for several years, but Humane Society International has been fighting to end their continued use on elephants used for tourist rides at the Amer Fort.
Scientists, elephant keepers, veterinarians, conservationists and other authorities agree that the bullhook has no place in modern elephant management and care and they cannot be used properly, safely or humanely. We are now pleased to see the AZA embrace this point of view. The organization has been a valuable partner to us on issues where we share concerns, and we have worked together on campaigns to restrict public contact with certain species and banning the trade in ivory and shark fins. Some individual AZA zoos have supported state and local efforts to ban bullhooks, ban the use of wild animals in traveling shows, and ban the private possession of dangerous wild animals.
There have been seven keeper deaths and at least 30 injuries to keepers and the public caused by elephants in AZA zoos since 1990, but the deaths and injuries have been declining as more and more zoos have transitioned to safer and humane methods.
We applaud the AZA for working to continually update its standards, and for making this important move away from bullhooks. We look forward to continue working with the AZA and encourage the organization to implement additional important reforms, including providing animals with more space, keeping animals in appropriate climates, discontinuing ambassador programs, phasing out some species that fare especially poorly in captivity, and a policy against importing wild-caught animals. We will also keep up our fight for ending the use of bullhooks by circuses and other animal acts that continue to use them. But for today, let’s take a moment to celebrate this important win for elephants living in zoos around our country.