Atlanta’s consideration of bullhooks to control elephants draws fire from PETA, which says they’re inhumane

By David Pendered

An animal rights organization plans to have a lawyer in Atlanta today to oppose the city’s proposed animal ordinance, which the group says would permit the use of bullhooks to control elephants.

Bullhooks don’t pop up much in daily conversation. But every February, when the circus comes to town, there’s debate about – and often rallies against – the metal-barbed sticks that animal trainers use to strike and apply pressure to sensitive spots of elephants.

Elephants in Dragons show

Elephants are prominent performers in the Dragons show by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Credit: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

“By introducing legislation that excludes a bullhook ban, it appears the city is caving to commercial interests over animal welfare,” said Carney Anne Chester, a lawyer for PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Tickets priced at up to $130 each already are on sale for the Feb. 13-18, 2013 show at Phillips Arena for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey all-new Dragons show. The show moves to the Arena at Gwinnett Center, in Duluth, for shows from Feb. 21 through March 3, according to the circus’ website.

Mayor Kasim Reed’s office has presented an animal ordinance that’s to be discussed at today’s meeting of the Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety Committee, scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. at Atlanta City Hall. The matter would be on the agenda of the council’s June 18 meeting, if it is approved by the Public Safety Committee.

Click here to read the proposed animal ordinance.

The proposed ordinance would replace the city’s official reliance on Fulton County’s animal ordinance. The county’s code bans the use of bullhooks.


Bullhooks like this are applied to sensitive spots on elephants to get them to respond to commands. Credit: In Defense of Animals

According to Chester, the proposed Atlanta ordinance will clear the way for bullhooks to be used on traveling circus animals, or any animals kept in the city.

“The existing animal control ordinance in the city of Atlanta already incorporates, by reference, all of Fulton County’s animal control ordinances – including the bullhook ban,” Chester said. “This proposal is being introduced for the soul purpose of legislating around the bullhook ban, which is why the proposed changes are unacceptable.”

PETA is to be represented by Delcianna Winders, a lawyer based in New Orleans who’s serving as director of PETA’s Department of Captive Animal Law Enforcement, which oversees issues pertaining to animals used in entertainment. Chester is an attorney with that department.

The current controversy in Atlanta dates back to June 2011.

That’s when Fulton County’s board of commissioners approved a ban on the use of bullhooks by a vote of  4-1. Among the advocates for change was actress Demi Moore, whose letter to Fulton’s commissioners compared bullhooks to “fireplace pokers.” Chester attended a commission meeting to support the ban, minutes of the meeting show.

Demi Moore

Actress Demi Moore wrote a letter asking Fulton County's board of commissioners in 2011 to ban the use of bullhooks. Credit: PETA

Click here to read Demi Moore’s letter to Fulton County’s board of commissioners.

Fulton County’s ban was among the first in the nation. It provided a description of bullhooks and forbid their use anywhere in unincorporated Fulton County. The county ordinance extended the ban to include all areas of any city that contracts for animal control services from the county. Atlanta contracts animal services from Fulton County.

Voting for the ban were commissioners:

  • Robb Pitts, who introduced the ban;
  • Emma Darnell;
  • Joan Garner;
  • Bill Edwards.

Not voting on the measure were:

  • Commission Chairman John Eaves;
  • Commissioner Tom Lowe.

Voting against the ban was Commissioner Liz Hausmann.

Fast-forward to February 2012.

Fulton County notified the Ringling Bros. circus that the bullhook ban would be enforced when the circus arrived for its scheduled performances in Atlanta. The circus’ law firm, Troutman Sanders, filed a lawsuit that resulted in the ban being declared not enforceable in Atlanta.

The city now has responded with a proposed ordinance that does not specifically ban the use of bullhooks. It does contain a ban against cruelty to animals, which reads:

  • “It shall be unlawful for any person to overload, poison, cruelly treat, maim, tease, bruise, deprive of necessary sustenance or medical attention, improperly use, deprive of shade and shelter, or in any manner whatsoever torture, kill, or abuse any animal.”

Fulton County’s animal ordinance contains similar language against animal cruelty. The county’s ordinance specifically bans the use of bullhooks.


David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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