Proposed Bullhook Ban in Oakland Stirs Debate Over Jobs Versus Animal Cruelty

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One year after the Oakland City Council passed a watered down ordinance regulating the safety of circus performances in the city, a proposed new law would go further by banning the use of bullhooks and other implements used for controlling elephants. The proposed ordinance is headed for discussion to the full council later this month. 

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The proposed ordinance, passed the Oakland City Council Public Safety Committee on Tuesday night, is far more strict than one introduced late last year by Councilmember Libby Schaaf, which fell short of banning the bullhook. Animal activists say the tool, essentially a stick with a small hook and point attached to the end, wields unnecessary fear in elephants and constitutes torture.

But representatives from Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros, Barnum & Bailey Circus, among other properties that use the Oakland Coliseum complex for performances, are threatening to drop Oakland from their touring schedule if the ban of bullhook is approved. Feld Entertainment also brings motor-cross and monster truck events to the Coliseum, along with various Disney on Ice productions. City staff said the Coliseum complex, which is jointly operated by the city and Alameda County, could lose up to $1.4 million in revenue if Feld Entertainment were to pull out of Oakland.

“I want to make it clear what the item is,” said Councilmember Noel Gallo, the committee’s chair. “It is not to ban the elephants from coming to Oakland. It is not to ban the circus from coming to Oakland. It’s not to ban any of the activity that the management group is involved in.” Instead, he added, the ordinance is focused merely on the use of the bullhook to control elephants. Gallo and Councilmember Dan Kalb are the ordinance’s co-sponsors.

But Tom Albert, a representative for Feld Entertainment, disagreed with Gallo’s assertion that the proposed ordinance does not effectively prohibit the circus in Oakland. “For us, that means banning our circus,” he said. The use of the bullhook, he added, is necessary to safely display elephants in a public setting. “Call it what you want: bullhook, guide, ankus — let’s be clear — it is not a weapon. It is not an instrument of torture. Its purpose is not to stab, to harm or to injure. It is a lawful, humane animal husbandry tool that allows a handler to control, guide and communicate with the animal.”

Kalb said he supports the circus, in general, but noted the prevalence of other touring companies who prosper without elephants in their acts. “I’ve seen too many moving visions of the treatment that these elephants are subjected — most of them by circus. It is mind-boggling. And how anybody can suggest that would acceptable or okay or trying to gloss over it doesn’t pass muster in the world of reality.” He added later, “We shouldn’t be teaching the young folks in our city that it’s okay to harm animals for our enjoyment. That is just unacceptable.”

Dozens of public speakers also urged the committee to ban the bullhook, including Joel Parrott, the president and CEO of the Oakland Zoo, which has prohibited its use on elephants. “This is going to come down to the money to be made versus the ethics of animal welfare,” said Parrott, who addressed the committee while holding a bullhook. “We don’t do this to dogs. We don’t do this to any other animal. And sometimes I just wonder, what are we thinking?” The zoo discontinued use of the bullhook in 1991, he said, after a handler was killed by one of its elephants. Parrott believes the elephant had enough with the torture inflicted by repeated use of the bullhook and violently lashed out.

But the potential loss of the circus and other events at the Coliseum may impact workers, said Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney. Following a terse give-and-take with Gallo, McElhaney urged for the ordinance to be held in committee until the economic ramifications for the city and Coliseum were better understood. The Coliseum’s large debt and uncertain future, it has been noted, add another layer of debate to the discussion.

Doug Bloch, the political director for the Teamsters Joint Council 7, said that between 50 to 100 jobs could be lost because of the ordinance. “Is this the most important public safety issue in the city that just became the robbery capital of America?” he said in an interview. “The biggest part of the problem here is nobody knows what the economical impact is going to be on the workers, the city and the county,” said Bloch, who adds workers could lose millions in wages from the circus’s departure. “I don’t’ pretend to know anything about elephant treatment, but if the council acts to ban animals from being in the circus, we need to go into this with eyes wide open.”

Animal rights activists, however, strongly support the proposed bullhook ban. “Kudos to the Oakland City Council's Public Safety Committee, which approved a proposed ban on bullhooks — weapons that resemble fireplace pokers with a sharp hook on one end — so that the full City Council can vote on it later this month,” PETA officials said in a statement. “This is an important step toward ending the cruelty that elephants face in the circus. We can't change the past for elephants who have endured the beatings and deprivation of circus training, but Oakland can refuse to allow such abuse to continue. PETA looks forward to a ban on bullhooks by Oakland’s full City Council before the year is out.”

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