By Graham Moomaw
Starting in 2018, traveling circuses will have to leave elephant bullhooks behind in order to perform in Richmond.
On Monday, the Richmond City Council voted 8-1 to ban tools used to train and control elephants, a move that adds Richmond to a growing list of localities that have passed local legislation aimed at elephant treatment.
The decision comes roughly two months after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus announced it would voluntarily phase out elephants from its performances, partly in response to efforts in dozens of cities, including Los Angeles, to pass legislation banning bullhooks.
The Richmond ban has been under consideration since October. The circus announced in March that it would phase out elephant acts.
The local ban was originally scheduled to take effect in 2017, but the council amended the ordinance to align with the circus’s plans to phase out elephants in 2018.
Councilwoman Kathy C. Graziano, 4th District, was the lone council opponent of the ban, saying the purpose of the legislation was to end elephant acts and “that has been accomplished.”
Monday’s meeting drew several dozen supporters of the bullhook ban, and a few who spoke against it.
Animal-welfare groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Richmond SPCA have supported the ban, characterizing bullhooks, rods tipped with a metal hook, as tools used to intimidate and inflict pain on elephants.
“People are no longer willing to allow the harsh treatment of elephants to continue just so that people can have a few moments of pleasure that will be forgotten as soon as the popcorn has been digested,” said Robin Starr, chief executive officer of the Richmond SPCA.
Representatives from Ringling Bros. and other groups that work closely with elephants have said bullhooks are a necessary component of working with the animals, including for veterinary and research purposes. They also disputed the notion that the tool’s primary purpose is to cause pain.
Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros., said Richmond’s ban is “unnecessary,” but added that it won’t impact the circus’s ability to perform in Richmond because of the planned phaseout.
“We are disappointed that the Richmond City Council today effectively banned elephants from ever visiting the city,” Stephen Payne, vice president of communications for Feld Entertainment, said in a written statement. “Despite the testimony of numerous experts on elephant husbandry and veterinary medicine, council was persuaded by the inflammatory and distorted opinions of a small yet vocal group of animal rights extremists.”
April Yoder, speaking on behalf of the Elephant Managers Association, said bullhooks are a “humane tool” if used correctly.
“Just because you have a dog doesn’t mean that you abuse it,” Yoder said. “You cannot paint everyone with the same paintbrush and say that just because we use an elephant hook we abuse our animals.”
Speakers who supported the bullhook ban characterized the tool as a cruel weapon that belongs in the past.
“The citizens of Richmond are ready to go into being a more compassionate and a more humane city,” said Todd Woodson, an Oregon Hill resident who has advocated for the ban.
The PETA Foundation praised the council vote in a statement released Monday night, saying the group “looks forward to seeing more cities across the country follow Richmond’s lead by banning bullhooks.”
Though Ringling Bros. moved to end its elephant acts since the Richmond legislation was introduced, 5th District Councilman Parker C. Agelasto, a patron of the measure, said Monday’s vote was “putting a bookend” on the issue.
Ringling Bros. has been performing in Richmond since 1911, with annual shows drawing tens of thousands of spectators to the Richmond Coliseum.