What would you call a Richmond City Council ban on bullhooks and other tools that inflict pain upon circus elephants?
Not enough, if you’re with Animal Defenders International.
City Council has been in contact with that organization as it contemplates a ban on the bullhook, described as “a rod, the tip of which is steel and resembles a fireplace poker” that is used to “prod, jab, hook and sometimes strike elephants to develop desired behavior.”
“I thought that they were very open and receptive,” ADI general counsel Christina Scaringe said Thursday from her Los Angeles office. “They seemed willing to look at the entirety of the issue.”
A spokesman for the parent company of Ringling Bros. circus has said such a ban would effectively prevent Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey from being able to perform in Richmond, ending a run that dates back nearly a century.
He called the bullhooks “long accepted and appropriate animal husbandry tools” approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But the circus has a problem that extends well beyond Richmond and bullhooks.
The use of wild and exotic animals in traveling circuses is now globally viewed as inhumane, says Matt Rossell, campaigns director for ADI.
He notes that there are more than 45 local ordinances across the U.S. prohibiting or restricting the use of these animals in traveling shows. Also, 27 countries have similar national legislation and Rep. Jim Moran, D-8th., has introduced the Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act, which aims to ban wild animals from traveling circuses.
Council President Charles R. Samuels is among the sponsors of the bullhook ban ordinance, along with councilmen Chris A. Hilbert and Parker C. Agelasto. Samuels said Thursday that he agreed to do so after a constituent brought the matter to his attention.
As for his personal feelings, “You never like to see an animal in pain,” he said. Still, “I’m not interested in being the Grinch who stole entertainment from children” and adults by effectively barring the circus from town.
But he acknowledged that he and his wife must decide someday whether the circus is appropriate entertainment for his son, now 3½.
“I’m looking for a solution that works for everybody and is still humane.”
The matter is slated for further discussion by a council committee, and the ban would not go into effect until January 2017. In the meantime, the council is working with Ringling Bros., ADI and the Richmond SPCA, whose CEO, Robin Robertson Starr, has sent out emails seeking support for the bullhook ban. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) also supports the measure.
But the removal of such weapons — and let’s face it, that’s what they are — will not cure what ails circuses rooted in centuries past.
Activist Todd Woodson is among the Richmond residents pushing the legislation.
“I’ve been an animal lover since I was a little kid, and I know there are other ways to train elephants than the negative reinforcement and the beatings,” he said.
The use of bullhooks sends the message to children “that bullying and beating is the way to go about getting what you want from an animal.”
Woodson agrees with ADI’s larger point. But for now, “There’s no way in heck the City Council would ban animals from coming to town.”
But Rossell says ADI prefers a wild animal ban to a bullhook ban.
“The unfortunate truth is, in situations where elephants are being abused — and they definitely are abused — just about anything can be used against an elephant as a weapon,” including human feet and fists, he said.
And as far as ADI is concerned, abusive training is only one problem with the use of circus animals. Travel and safety are others.
Abused wild animals “can and do injure people — circus people and members of the public,” Rossell said.
Also, the animals are on the road most of the year, confined outside their natural habitat, “moving from one parking lot to the next,” he said. “The very nature of the traveling circus prevents the animals from getting the space and environment they need to thrive.”
Or as ADI’s Scaringe says: “There is extensive and growing evidence that even with the best intentions, traveling shows simply cannot provide what these animals need. Some animal behavior experts have opined that the environmental and psychological deprivation may be more harmful than even the physical abuse.”
The organization is not anti-circus, Rossell said. But he argues that circuses in general (think Cirque du Soleil) are thriving around the world, but those with exotic animals are not enjoying such growth. This reflects the public’s growing appetite for humane entertainment, Rossell said.
“We’re just saying the circus needs to change with the times and get rid of the inhumane animal acts and focus on the human entertainers they already have.”
Woodson foresees a circus without wild animals in a decade or two, but says positive changes can be made in the meantime that don’t hurt businesses.
He argues that the anti-cruelty measure under consideration “is fair and reasonable and gives the shows affected ample time to respond in a way that does not disrupt their business in our city and will much improve their attraction. This measure is doable and will effect a positive and humane transition.”
Perhaps. But the traditional circus is an unsustainable anachronism that sends the wrong message to children and adults alike. We shouldn’t need much more prodding to bring the circus into the 21st century.
The show can go on. But not without changes to make it safer and more humane.