Bullhooks Used on Circus Elephants in Atlanta Despite County Ban

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Bullhooks can harm elephants. Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be allowed to use bullhooks on elephants during its performances in Atlanta this week despite a countywide ban on the devices.

Bullhooks are tools with long handles and a sharp hook at one end that allows trainers to apply varying degrees of pressure to sensitive spots on an elephant’s body. Circuses say the tools are necessary for the safe handling of elephants, but critics say bullhooks are harmful to the animals.

In June, Fulton County commissioners voted for a ban on the controversial devices, becoming the first Georgia jurisdiction to do so, but on Tuesday, Feb. 14, a Fulton County Superior Court Judge issued an order that temporarily overrode the ban.

In his order, Fulton County Superior Court Judge John Goger said the city of Atlanta had not adopted an elephant ordinance of its own. He also said there is no intergovernmental agreement between the county and the city for animal control services, which enforces the ban.

However, Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts says the city has been paying for and using those county services. "It says to me even in the absence of a signed document there is an implied agreement and therefore we have the right to enforce this provision in the city of Atlanta," he told The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Pitts says he supports the bullhook ban because he believes the tools are harmful to elephants.

Steven Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, the parent company for Ringling Brothers, says that the bullhook is simply “an extension of the handler’s hand” and that it is “an invaluable tool in the humane and safe handling of elephants.” He also said that without the use of bullhooks, Ringling Brothers would have canceled its Atlanta tour, which began on Wednesday at Phillips Arena.

Animal rights group People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals staged a protest outside the arena on Wednesday with a large inflatable elephant wearing a sign that read, "Step Right Up! See shackles, bullhooks, and loneliness at the circus."

Fulton County officials are considering citing circus workers for cruelty to animals if there is evidence of abuse, animal control official Tony Phillips told the AJC on Wednesday.