By Nicole Levy
When it comes to protecting elephants, Sophie Smith, 14, lets circus owners hear her roar.
On Feb. 3, the Marblehead Veterans Middle School eighth-grader testified at the Massachusetts State House before the Tourism, Arts and Cultural Committee in support of proposed legislation aimed at banning the use of bullhooks to prod elephants performing in the circus.
Smith explained the bullhook is a two-pronged metal hook attached to a two- to three-foot handle. Elephant handlers jab the elephant in sensitive areas, like under the ears, to move it along during a show. After time, the elephant skin breaks down, she noted. Moreover, she said a video, shot undercover by the animal-rights group PETA, showed Ringling Bros. circus elephants being hit in the face with the rod.
Smith added that elephants are cramped in small cages, and are made to stand on small stools to perform tricks; these damage the elephants’ ankle and leg joints, she said.
“I enjoyed the circus as a kid,” Smith said. “But when I found out the way elephants are treated, I realized parents don’t have any idea what cruelty there is.”
State Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, who is co-sponsoring “S1626: An Act Relating to the Treatment of Elephants” along with state Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, said in a phone interview, “I am supporting the ban on bullhooks for humane reasons.
Ehrlich noted that Los Angeles recently prohibited the use of bullhooks on elephants.
“If they can do it, so can we,” she said.
Last week, animal rights groups picketed in outside a Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey circus performance in Atlanta over this issue.
Stephen Payne, vice president of communications for Feld Entertainment, the circus’ parent company, takes a different view of the issue.
“They are trying to demonize acceptable husbandry tools in order to advance a larger political agenda… of separating people from animals,” Payne said during a phone interview. “For example, some animal-rights activists are against people owning pets.”
Payne said handlers first try to verbally guide elephants, but when elephants do not respond, the bullhook is the only way to move an 8,000-pound animal. He said bullhooks do not injure elephants due to their thick skin, as long as the instrument is used correctly. Bullhooks, he said, have evolved over the past 1,000 years.
When Payne was asked whether elephants feel pain when poked with bullhooks, he replied, “I don’t believe so.”
Payne denied that Ringling Bros. mistreats elephants, noting that its elephants receive sufficient food, social groups, exercise and regular medical care. He said 22 of the circus’ elephants stay at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, while the 22 others tour.
According to Payne, elephant performances remain a popular part of the circus.
“We can’t have elephants in the show without the use of bullhooks to guide them,” he said. “Since we cannot leave elephants at state lines, prohibiting bullhooks would preclude us from coming to Massachusetts.”
Ringling Bros. visits Worcester and Boston annually.
Smith said at the hearing that Ringling Bros. should consider running shows without the use of animals, as Cirque du Soleil. Or the company could train elephants using positive reinforcement, like giving them treats after correct moves, instead of hurting them for incorrect behavior. She added elephants could learn to perform less strenuous but still entertaining tricks.
“I am afraid that a child in the audience who sees an elephant being harmed will think it’s OK to beat his own dog,” Smith said.
She thinks now that people are more sensitive to animal rights than they were decades ago, parents will be concerned about what kids are observing at the circus. If many states ban the bullhook, “Ringling Bros. will have to adapt” to this new environment, she said.
Comparing her mission to that of the Lorax in the eponymous Dr. Seuss book, Smith said, “Since elephants cannot talk, I speak for them. I give them my voice.
Smith’s commitment to this issue arose from a “long-time compassion for all creatures.” Back in 2011, as a sixth-grader working on her mitzvah project for her bat mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony, she searched for different animal protection groups to support. She raised $700 for the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee by selling magnets with a picture of an elephant and an inscription on them; this amount fed 17 elephants at the sanctuary for one day. The organization cares for retired zoo and circus elephants unable to return to the wild.
When Ehrlich’s husband, Bruce, saw elephant magnets being sold at Shubie’s Marketplace, he put Smith in touch with his wife, as Lori Ehrlich had already been advocating at the state-level for protection of circus elephants. Ehrlich soon invited Smith to testify at the State House.
Speaking in front of 70 people last week, Smith felt more comfortable with the previous testimony already under her belt. She said at the beginning, she felt intimidated by the presence of lawyers representing Feld Enterprises in the same room.
“I decided that I wasn’t there to impress them,” Smith said. “The first time I testified, I sat crouched over. This time, I sat up straight.”
Fellow student Annalise Hammer accompanied her for support.
Ehrlich said Smith was poised and confident.
“Sophie’s testimony was very compelling…I commend her for her taking her passion and turning it into advocacy,” Ehrlich said.