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David Pendered

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.

“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

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.



  1. Birdlover22 June 12, 2012 4:36 pm

    Bullhooks are perceived by some in the general public as being harsh cruel instruments used on elephants. However, that is not the case. Elephants are huge animals. They cannot respond to spoken commands because of the location of their ears and the noise of the crowd…they need something that touches them. That is how these elephant guides (bullhooks) have been used for centuries….with a touch of the guide, the elephant knows which way to turn, and what to do next. These guides are tools that are no more cruel than a lead on a dog going for a walk. With any tool, there can be some misuse. However, that does not mean all use should be banned. This is the ONLY way the elephant trainer has to communicate with the elephant and know the elephant has received the message. PETA and their followers just don’t want ANY elephants performing ANY where in public…sorry, but many in the public do want to see elephants in the circus.Report

    1. Sarah June 13, 2012 8:23 am

      How can you possibly justify a Bullhook?  A leash does not have a razor sharp point on it like a Bullhook. Your username is birdlover–do you use a bullhook on your bird? The Bullhook is NOT a “guide” Clearly that is an industry term you have been taught. No elephant wants to be jabbed by a razor sharp object EVER! Elephants are not supposed to stand on their heads or sit on their hind legs. How do you sleep at night justifying cruelty and slavery of these innocent creatures? I am a citizen and taxpayer of Atlanta. I am not going sit idly and allow this city to continue to allow Ringling to profit from their daily beatings of elephants. You are clearly brainwashed and uneducated and heartless to say the least.Report

  2. silvercat June 12, 2012 9:25 pm

    I don’t care how bad is theBullhooks are for elephants. It’s just wrong USE ANIMALS TO MAKE MONEY FROM THEM!! Go to work lazy, use your mind and creativity to entertain  people or copy “cirque du soleil” or look for another job circus people!Report

  3. Sarita June 12, 2012 9:41 pm

    Why do some people believe that animals are meant to serve us?? This is sheer arrogance. 🙁
    Baby elephants, still suckling, are torn from their mothers and are “trained” very brutally for one hour a day, for a year before being forced, still juveniles, to perform in travelling circuses. Apart for the one hour a day, the rest of the time they are chained by all four feet in a dark barn. Their lives of misery continue until they die, never having lived a natural life. These facts were supplied by an ex-trainer of Ringling, Sam Haddock, with photos he took to support his evidence.  No one can contest them.
    Ask your concience if this cruelty is acceptable to you. Will you not be up in arms if this happens to your babies?? Then what happenned now?? So what if they are elephant babies and not humans??
    Please folks, think from your heart and you will get the right answers.

  4. Sarah June 13, 2012 8:17 am

    The ONLY use of Bullhooks is to beat elephants into submission. Elephants do NOT want to be in circuses. They are forced to. They are taken away from their mothers at 2 months old, chained, hogged tied and beaten until they perform painful tricks for profit. Ringling is only for profit. If they cared about elephants, they would leave them in Africa and Asia–their natural habitat. I do not want my tax dollars going to cruelty. The city of Atlanta must remind themselves that this is a city of Civil Rights and all animals must be protected. If you want to see what the circus is all about behind closed doors, go to http://www.circuses.com
    If people see what really happens in circuses to elephants, they will NOT go to the circus. Ringling knows this and that’s why they keep justifying cruelty. Martin Luther King Jr would never stand for this and neither should we.Report


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