LOS ANGELES — Wearing an elephant-patterned tie and grasping a bullhook, a city councilman who authored a ban on using bullhooks to train circus elephants joined animal welfare activists at City Hall March 5 to praise the decision by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus to phase out its elephant acts.
Councilman Paul Koretz said he thought it would take the circus 15 to 20 years to agree to remove its elephant acts, but “seeing the handwriting on the wall, I think they ultimately did the right thing.”
The circus blamed pressure from the growing number of cities around the country that were adopting “anti-circus elephant” laws for its decision to stop its elephant acts by 2018.
One of those cities was Los Angeles, which last year passed a ban on bullhooks, goads and other prods used to train elephants, with Koretz and other city leaders criticizing the practice as inhumane. The ban goes into effect in January 2017.
Koretz credited the city’s ban for spurring similar laws in other cities, saying that with “Oakland and San Francisco joining, all of California would be a poor market” for the circus “pretty soon.”
Cheri Shankar, a director on the board of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said “the end is in sight for the use of elephants by Ringling Bros., and I hope by every other circus in the United States.”
“We’re just thrilled with the announcement,” she said. “Of course, we wish those elephants were out of the circus tomorrow, but we’ll take it.”
She said the bullhooks are used to “jab, strike and intimidate elephants into performing unnatural tricks [are] simply out of line with the values of our city.”
Koretz also said that many circuses have stopped using elephants and other exotic animals in their shows, but Ringling Bros. is “the big one that is still doing this.”
He said the city chose to target bullhooks, rather than banning elephants acts, so that the ban stood a better chance of getting support from other council members, and “it did give the handlers a chance a prove they can do it some other way, without force — but they can’t.”
“They recognized that it wound up being, in effect, a ban on elephants, because you can’t treat them humanely and expect them to be under control at the same time,” Koretz said.
Stephen Payne, a spokesman for the circus, said they will continue to tour in Los Angeles with their elephant acts this summer, but they have not decided what they will do in 2016 and 2017.
Payne said that while Ringling Bros. feels the use of the bullhooks is a humane way to train elephants, the circus was “facing a patchwork quilt of regulations across the country, which made it difficult for us to run a business.”
“Rather than spend the time and resources fighting these anti-circus legislation, we decided to take the elephants out of our touring unit and move them to the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida,” he said.
Some animal welfare activists said they hoped the steps now being taken by Ringling Bros. will not only prompt other circuses to stop using elephants in their shows, but also stop the use of elephants for other entertainment purposes, such as elephants rides or for doing tricks in movies and television commercials.
They also called for Billy the Elephant at the Los Angeles Zoo to be freed, saying that it is inhumane to keep elephants in small spaces when they are used to walking more than 30 miles a day.
Koretz said he agreed that the elephant should be released.
“I was sorry I didn’t get on the council in time to join Tony Cardenas [a former councilman] and his efforts to remove elephants from the zoo,” he said. “I think we wasted a lot of money since then, building an exhibit, and ultimately people are going to realize that having elephants in a relatively small confined space is not a humane thing either.”
The city is currently fighting a lawsuit filed by a real estate agent to remove the zoo’s elephant exhibit.