Advocacy Blog

Elephant Bill Public Hearing

The February 13th public hearing on S.1706, An Act Relating to the Treatment of Elephants, was well attended; thank you to all of the animal advocates who testified in support of this important legislation, including sponsor, Senator Hedlund, and co-sponsor, Representative Ehrlich. 

This moderate legislation would restrict chaining and the use of the bullhook to train and punish elephants.  Circus elephants are typically chained for about 20 hours a day, which causes stress, frustration, and stereotypic behaviors, as well as injuries to their feet, legs, and joints.  The bullhook is a heavy club with a sharp hook and pointed poker at the end that can easily inflict pain and injury.  Trainers often use the hook in the tender spots on an elephant’s body to establish human dominance; elephants know that refusal to obey a bullhook-wielding trainer’s commands will result in severe punishment. For more information, and to take action on this legislation in the current session, see

At the hearing, several people testified about Ringling Bros. training baby elephants with bullhooks and restraints; the photo gallery of the training sessions was provided by Sam Haddock, a Ringling elephant trainer, and published in the Washington Post.  More recent media coverage includes articles, "The Cruelest Show on Earth" and "Ringling Brothers Agree To USDA Fine For Allegedly Violating Animal Welfare Act".  If you missed her testimony yesterday, you should watch pre-hearing footage of Sophia Smith, a 12 year old who testified for the elephants and talked about how she and her friends won’t attend circuses with exotic animals because they do not want to support the cruelty involved.  There was also a discussion of footage obtained by people who attend the circus, such as this video of circus cruelty in Lanesboro, MA in June, 2011.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has jurisdiction over enforcement of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which covers circus elephants; contact information to report violations is on their website, along with USDA inspection reports.  The recent, record-breaking fine paid by Ringling to the USDA was discussed at the hearing, along with the history of violations of the AWA that Ringling and other circuses have had over many years.   These violations happen all over the country; there is no reason to believe that they do not happen in Massachusetts, even if the guilty people are never caught.

The lawsuit brought by various animal protection groups and a former Ringling employee against Ringling Bros./Feld Entertainment for violations of the Endangered Species Act associated with harm to Asian elephants was mentioned several times in testimony from both sides.  Born Free USA has an incredible amount of information on their website, including Ringling’s documents (which contain Ringling’s admission that employees strike elephants with bullhooks and that the bullhooks cannot stop an elephant from charging or hurting someone), trial transcripts, and footage of the use of bullhooks and chains.  Though Feld Entertainment prevailed in this trial, which ended in March 2009, it wasn’t because the case didn’t have merit and the elephants were not harmed; it was because the plaintiffs lacked ‘standing’ to sue on behalf of the elephants, which is a common problem in cases involving non-human animals and the humans who try to fight for justice on their behalf.

 Progress in elephant management in zoos was discussed at the hearing because the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is requiring that, on or before September 1, 2014, elephant care providers at AZA facilities cannot share unrestricted space with elephants, except to provide "medical and welfare procedures."  This seriously restricts the use of bull hooks since the keepers cannot be in contact with the elephants most of the time (prior to this change, AZA considered striking elephants with the hook end of the ankus/bullhook, striking elephants with anything in/around sensitive areas of their body, or using any tool with enough force to cause physical harm to be unacceptable).  The more progressive zoos (and facilities like the Elephant Sanctuary, whose photo of the use of a target or soft wand is featured in the article above) use ‘protected contact’ and do not use bullhooks.  Circuses are not required to adhere to this policy because they are not accredited by the AZA, but they should comply with industry standards for the welfare of circus elephants and the safety of staff and circus attendees; unfortunately they often do not, and, in fact, inflict harm on elephants.

We didn’t hear too much about the potential economic impact of this legislation – maybe because the other side has seen the report, “The Show Will Still Go On : An Economic Analysis of Passage of Circus Legislation R)stricting Training Methods Utilized on Elephants”, which shows that legislation such as S.1626 (the 2013-2014 session's refile of S.706) will not have a negative economic impact on states that pass it into law.

Opposition to the bill came, not surprisingly, from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Circus Fans of America, Commerford petting zoo and animal rides, the Elephant Managers Association, the National Animal Interest Alliance (don’t let the benign name or mission statement fool you into believing this group is interested in helping animals), and the Massachusetts Agricultural Fairs Association (isn’t it strange that agricultural fairs include elephants rather than focusing on animals in agriculture?).  If not for the cadre of people testifying from out of state for Ringling, the opposition would have been seriously outnumbered by local animal advocates, many of whom the day off from work or school to spend a few minutes testifying for the elephants at the hearing.

The Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development will soon decide the fate of S.1626.  You can still submit written testimony to the members, asking them for a favorable report, and let your state legislators know that you want them to support S.1626.   If you have any questions, you can contact us at  

Thank you for all you do for the animals.     To read past blog entries, see: