Bullhook F.A.Q.

Listed below are the facts about bullhooks, and why they should be banned.

A bullhook being used on a baby elephant.

What is a bullhook?
A bullhook is a steel-pointed rod resembling a fireplace poker that is used to prod, hook, and strike elephants in order to dominate and control them during training, performing, and handling. The sharp tip and hook are applied with varying degrees of pressure to sensitive spots on an elephant’s body, causing the elephant to recoil from the source of pain. The handle is used as a club, inflicting substantial pain by striking areas where little tissue separates skin and bone. In response to criticisms that bullhook use constitutes abuse, the industry has publicly started calling it a “guide.”

A bullhook being used on a baby elephant

How are elephants trained with a bullhook?
Elephant calves are forcibly separated from their mothers (females elephants naturally remain with their mothers for life) and taught to associate the bullhook with pain and fear. While the elephant is typically restrained, handlers repeatedly administer sharp jabs and hooks with the bullhook, and strike sensitive parts of their bodies with the handle or metal hook. Thereafter, the elephant responds to the bullhook out of fear of pain (moving away from the device) and will be expected to perform a behavior on cue or suffer the painful consequences. Without this fear-based training, the elephant would not respond to this otherwise meaningless device. The very sight of a bullhook is a threatening reminder of the painful punishment that can be delivered at any time.

A bullhook being used on a baby elephant.

Why are elephants trained with a bullhook?
Elephants are highly intelligent, powerful, and dangerous wild animals; there is no such thing as a “domesticated” elephant. Elephants in direct contact with humans present a serious risk and must be kept under strict control at all times. An elephant is not allowed to step out of line – not even for a moment – or she will be physically punished with the bullhook. Elephants would not voluntarily perform the grueling routines required in a typical circus act—these physically difficult tricks are only performed to avoid punishment.
Don’t elephants have thick skin?
Though thick, an elephant’s skin is rich in nerve endings and is so sensitive they can feel an insect bite. The bullhook is typically embedded into the most sensitive areas of an elephant: behind the ears, under the chin, inside the mouth, on the back of the legs, in the anus, and sensitive areas around the face. It can cause puncture wounds, abrasions and lacerations of the skin. Circuses use a gray powder called Wonderdust to conceal bloody bullhook wounds.
Do bullhooks keep trainers, veterinarians and the public safe?
No. Elephant trainers cannot protect themselves, let alone the general public, when an elephant decides to rebel against a trainer’s physical dominance. Elephant attacks typically occur in situations where humans and elephants share the same space, bullhooks are used, and where elephants are subjected to human dominance. Since 1990, at least 16 human deaths and 135 injuries in the U.S. have been attributed to elephants, primarily in circus-related incidents.
What is the alternative?
Protected Contact management uses positive reinforcement training paired with food treats and praise and a protective barrier between elephant and trainer; the bullhook is not used. With Protected Contact the elephant also has a choice to participate in training sessions. If they choose not to, then they may simply walk away from the trainer with no repercussions for doing so. Progressive zoos and bona fide sanctuaries utilize this method and are able to effectively provide husbandry and veterinary care to elephants in a way that is safer for keepers and veterinarians, as well as psychologically and physically humane for elephants.
What is the policy of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)?
The AZA policy prohibits keepers from sharing unrestricted space with elephants because of the great risk to keepers, and avoids the need for implements like the bullhook. The policy was instituted after incidents in which elephants attacked and killed or grievously injured keepers. All the keepers involved in dangerous incidents used bullhooks, which did not prevent, and may have aggravated, these tragedies.
Who opposes the use of bullhooks?
World-renowned authorities, such as Dr. Cynthia Moss and Dr. Joyce Poole, who have studied wild elephants for more than 30 years, condemn the use of the bullhook. Other elephant experts opposing bullhooks include wildlife veterinarians, conservationists, animal welfare professionals and policy makers, former and current zoo directors, and elephant keepers. No animal protection organization or bona fide conservation organization supports the use of bullhooks.
Who supports the use of bullhooks?
Circuses, businesses that provide elephant rides, and a diminishing number of zoos that are still clinging to an outdated and inhumane way of managing elephants.
What are the Elephant Manager’s Association (EMA) and the International Elephant Foundation (IEF)?
Both are industry organizations with close ties to circuses and elephant trainers who continue to use the bullhook. The EMA and the IEF each have a board of directors on which more than half of the members represent facilities that use bullhooks, including circuses, zoos and elephant ride providers.
What government agency monitors elephant training?
No agency, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the welfare of exhibited elephants, monitors animals during training sessions, where the most severe abuse commonly occurs. Yet, a simple Internet search will produce several behind-the-scenes videos showing elephants being abused with bullhooks.

What is the position of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on bullhooks?
Federal law does not prohibit bullhooks. However, there is no recognition that use of the bullhook is a preferred way to manage elephants, or that it is a key component of elephant care and handling. Unfortunately, federal oversight is not enough to protect elephants, as exhibitors are only subject to periodic inspections.
What municipalities and counties have passed restrictions on the use of bullhooks?
Los Angeles and Oakland, California; Margate, Miami Beach, and Pompano Beach, Florida; Union City and Fulton County, Georgia; Jefferson County, Kentucky; and Clatsop County, Oregon.
What other actions have been taken to protect elephants?
More than 40 U.S. municipalities have passed full or partial restrictions on the use of wild animals in public displays, and/or the use of bullhooks. More than 30 countries have passed national restrictions on the use of wild animals in public displays. Mexico recently banned all performing animal acts. California is currently considering a bullhook ban, Senate Bill 716. The states of Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island have considered a bullhook ban recently and will do so again.
How have circuses dealt with local ordinances prohibiting the use of elephants or of bullhooks?
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus will no longer use elephant acts starting in 2018; the circus cited the proliferation of local performing animal ordinances and changing public sentiment against the use of elephants in circuses. Many newspapers nationwide praised the decision. News reports indicate that other circuses will follow Ringling’s example.
Will the ordinance be difficult to enforce?
No. The ordinance bans the bullhook and similar devices outright, which means that circuses and other exhibitors using bullhooks cannot bring elephants to Austin.
Why focus on the bullhook and not on the people abusing elephants with the device?
The very nature of traveling shows makes It virtually impossible to bring abusive trainers to justice: By the time law enforcement gets involved the show has already moved on. Further, most of the worst abuses occur behind the scenes, where the public cannot see it. Prohibiting use of the bullhook is the only sure way to prevent the abuse of elephants with this cruel implement.
Will a bullhook ban reduce family entertainment choices?
No. The only traveling circus that comes to Austin is Ringling Bros., which will end the use of elephant acts in 2018. Elephants are the only animals trained and managed with the bullhook.
Will the ordinance affect the handling of livestock at county fairs?
No. The ordinance is specific to elephants.