By Matthew Artz
OAKLAND -- The City Council next month will reconsider outlawing a device used to control circus elephants in a move that would please animal welfare advocates but likely put an end to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' 92-year run in Oakland.
Council members Noel Gallo and Dan Kalb announced Monday that they will try next month to make Oakland the nation's second major city to ban bullhooks, which are batons with sharp pointed hooks used by elephant trainers.
While Ringling Bros. is adamant that the instrument does no harm to elephants and is needed to safeguard trainers and the public, opponents counter that it is designed to inflict pain and make the elephants submissive from an early age.
"We're not going to look the other way when it comes to torturing animals," Kalb said. Also backing the ban is Joel Parrott, president of the Oakland Zoo, which stopped using bullhooks on its elephants 23 years ago.
While the zoo uses positive reinforcement such as feedings to control its elephants, Parrott said there is no way elephants would do circus tricks or let performers ride them without the use of bullhooks.
"The only way to be dominant toward an elephant is to inflict pain, and that is where the problem is," he said. "Everybody needs to ask themselves if it is OK to stab an elephant just to get them to do what you want them to do."
Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, which operates Ringling Bros., said bullhooks, when used properly, have been deemed humane by both by federal regulators and the American Veterinary Medical Association.
He called bullhook bans a tactic by animal rights groups in their quest to put the circus out of business. "They claim it's not an anti-circus law, but it is," he said. "We can't bring Ringling Bros. to Oakland without our elephants." The circus does perform in San Jose.
Feld said Ringling Bros., which has come to Oakland every year since 1922 and is scheduled to return in August, generates $1.3 million for the local economy. Council members were informed Monday that if Feld were to cancel the circus and its other events in Oakland, which include Disney on Ice and motorcycle racing and monster truck shows, it would cost city and Alameda County taxpayers $1.4 million in lost revenue and arena workers up to $2.8 million in lost wages, Councilman Larry Reid said.
"I have to look at the financial impact, especially at a time when we are trying to hire more police officers," he said.
Los Angeles this year became the first city to ban bullhooks, and Payne said that Ringling Bros. would stop performing there once the law takes effect in three years. Oakland council members stopped short of banning bullhooks last year, choosing instead to set up animal welfare inspections for the circus. At the time, there appeared to be only three votes on the eight-member council for a bullhook ban: Kalb, Gallo and Mayor-elect Libby Schaaf.
But Councilwoman Pat Kernighan, who is retiring, has since said she would likely support a ban, raising the possibility that the council could deadlock on the issue. Proponents of the ban were pushing for a December vote before Kernighan and Schaaf leave the council. The ban is slated to be debated Dec. 2 by the council's four-member Public Safety Commission and then go to a vote by the full council on Dec. 9.