The bullhook is a tool used to punish and control elephants. It is also called an ankus, elephant goad, elephant hook, or a guide. The handle is made of wood, metal, plastic, or fiberglass, and there is a sharp steel hook and a point at one end. Its shape resembles a boat hook or fireplace poker. Some bullhooks have long, “shepherd’s crook” cane-style handles, allowing the trainer a firmer grip so that greater force can be exerted while pulling and yanking the hook deeper into the elephant’s flesh.
Both ends inflict damage. The trainer uses the hook and the point to apply varying degrees of pressure to sensitive spots on the elephant’s body (see diagram), causing the elephant to move away from the source of discomfort. Holding the hooked end, the handle is swung like a baseball bat and induces substantial pain when the elephant is struck on the wrist, ankle, and other areas where there is little tissue between skin and bone.
The Pachyderm’s Epidermis
The thickness of an elephant’s skin ranges from one inch across the back and hindquarters to paper-thin around the mouth and eyes, inside the ears, and at the anus. Their skin appears deceptively tough, but in reality it is so delicate that an elephant can feel the pain of an insect bite. A bullhook can easily inflict pain and injury on an elephant’s sensitive skin. Trainers often embed the hook in the soft tissue behind the ears, inside the ear or mouth, in and around the anus, and in tender spots under the chin and around the feet.
San Jose, Calif., humane inspectors found that seven elephants used by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus “had injuries behind or on the back of their left ears. Some of the elephants had scars behind their left ears. Almost all of the injuries appeared to be fresh, with bright red blood present at the wound sites.” These bloody wounds were likely caused by the bullhook. In fact, Ringling opposed a proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) policy that stated, “An ankus may not be used in an abusive manner that causes wounds or other injuries.” Former Ringling employee Glen Ewell said that beating elephants with bullhooks was a normal routine and that “Ringling even employs a guy to use some special powder to stop up the bleeding when an elephant is hooked too hard. They call it ‘spot work.’” The powder is Wonder Dust, or something similar, used to conceal the wound and stop the bleeding.
USDA inspectors noted and described bullhook wounds on elephants used by Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus elephants: “Helen and Bessie both have several white circular inactive ankus scars. Bessie has white circular inactive ankus scars under her chin, on the neck, and dorsal areas. Helen also has the same type of scars behind her right eye and at the dorsal right ear. She also has two longitudinal scars on her tail. … Two of the six elephants had obvious hook mark wounds on their rear legs. Some hook marks were also observed under the jaw of one elephant. … [F]our of the six elephants were observed with what appears to be hook marks. These wounds were small in size, round, some were healing, while others were red in appearance. These wounds were present on rear legs, above tails, and on [the] back of front legs.”
Within hours of being punctured by a bullhook, a welt or boil may erupt. The wound may grow larger if it becomes infected.
While performing in the ring, an elephant responds to verbal commands from a trainer carrying a bullhook and moderate pressure from the bullhook because the elephant has been conditioned through violent training sessions that refusal to obey in the ring will result in severe punishment later. Moments before entering the ring, while out of view of the public, trainers may give the elephants a few painful whacks to remind them who’s boss and ensure that the elephants perform the specified tricks on command.
Because a dispirited elephant submits to a dominant trainer toting a bullhook, circuses mislead the public with spurious claims that a bullhook is only used to guide or cue an elephant. The difficult tricks that elephants are forced to perform place a great deal of stress on their muscles and joints. They are physically strenuous and no elephant would perform these grotesquely exaggerated maneuvers on command, over and over, hundreds of times a year without the constant threat of punishment. In the wild, an adult elephant would lie down in slow, gradual movements no more than once or twice per day. A typical circus act requires that they lie down and rise very quickly several times in a single show. If it were possible for an elephant to simply be “guided” to perform rapid successions of headstands, hind-leg stands, lying down, tub-sitting, crawling, and twirling, the trainer would be carrying a soft, cotton wand, not a hard, pointed object.
Elephants exhibit typical pain avoidance responses to the bullhook by recoiling or emitting fear vocalizations.
Trainers’ Grim Details of Discipline
In addition to bullhooks, trainers use baseball bats, ax handles, pitchforks, and electric shock. Chains, ropes, and block-and-tackle are used as restraints.
Alan Roocroft, an elephant consultant to circuses and zoos, cowrote in his book Managing Elephants:
[W]hen corporal punishment is administered to an elephant, it has to be fairly forceful in order that it is perceived by the elephant to be punishment at all. … [T]he trainer must now intimidate the animal in order to acquire a dominant position. … [R]estraining a potentially hostile elephant needs at least a crew of eight, preferably 10, in order to insure sufficient ‘muscle’ is available. Once immobilized, the elephant may be the object of punishment in the form of blows with a wooden rod.
In I Loved Rogues, elephant trainers George “Slim” Lewis and Byron Fish wrote:
Circus animals are performers, and training them depends on a certain amount of rough treatment.
What is true of training for performance is even more true of the basic discipline that must be established before an elephant can work or act. It isn’t kept in a cage, and, while it is chained much of the time, there are many occasions when it walks at liberty with only the respect it pays its handler to keep it in check. It is absolutely essential, therefore, that the animal must have this respect for its handler; and to get down to blunt facts, this quality begins with fear: fear of punishment and discomfort.
A good stout stick should be used, and it should have a sharp prod on the end of it to keep the elephant from turning its head.
[Teaching an elephant to lie down is] done by gradually tightening the chain, a few inches at a time, until the elephant is supporting its weight entirely on the front and hind legs that are free. It is very tiring for a bull to hold up its mass in this manner. When the handler sees it weakening, he gives the command, ‘Down! Come on down.’ The command is repeated until the elephant obeys. Just before it gives in, it will show signs of fear and defeat. Its eyes will bulge and its bowels become loose and watery as they are emptied several times. When the elephant finally surrenders and falls over on its side, it knows it is comparatively helpless and that it has lost a psychological battle.
In July 1998, 30 elephant calves between 2 and 7 years of age were captured from the Tuli Block in Botswana. Their front legs were tightly hobbled and the back legs chained in a stretched position so they were unable to lie down. They were deprived of adequate food and water and beaten repeatedly with rubber whips and bullhooks that caused abscesses and lesions. An investigator with the National Council for the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals described a training session, “One elephant was tied up in the warehouse. … When the elephant simply moved its trunk or shifted its weight, the mahouts [elephant handlers] would all hit it. Especially the mahout in front, who would whip its face with a rubber whip. I counted that during this training session of 20 minutes, the elephant was hit or stabbed with an ankus a total of 136 times.”
PETA released shocking photos of baby elephants bound and electro-shocked by trainers in order to force them to learn tricks. Ringling breaks the spirit of elephants when they’re vulnerable babies who should still be with their mothers. Parents taking their children to the circus would think twice if they saw these shocking photos of the elephants who are enslaved with ropes, bullhooks, and electric shock prods in these violent training sessions—all for a few moments of entertainment.
Submission Is the Mission
The bullhook is a purposely cruel tool that is brandished against these gentle giants to coerce obedience. No circus could use elephants without it. Its appearance is so menacing that police charged a California activist with possessing a deadly weapon when she used a bullhook in an educational display at a circus demonstration to illustrate the barbaric treatment of performing animals .
The federal Animal Welfare Act does not prohibit bullhook use, but some local communities do. Pompano Beach, Florida, banned the bullhook by amending its animal control ordinance to categorize it as a device that is “likely to cause physical injury, torment, or pain and suffering to animals.”
What You Can Do
- When the circus comes to town, organize a demonstration to educate the public to the fact that demeaning stunts performed in the ring are the result of behind-the-scenes bullhook beatings and other abusive training methods. Let your local news outlet know how elephants are really trained. Check our factsheets for the circus’ USDA violations. For other ideas on what to do when the circus arrives, see our circus resources.
- Start a campaign to amend the animal control ordinance in your community to incorporate language that forbids the use of bullhooks and other manual, mechanical, and chemical devices intended to cause pain and suffering.
- If your local zoo still uses bullhooks on its elephants, then it is using an outdated elephant management system called “free contact.” Urge zoo officials to implement “protected contact”. In this system, there is a protective barrier between elephants and zookeepers, who do not have direct physical contact with the elephants. It is a more humane environment for the elephants and safer for zookeepers.