A change of heart

By State Senator Robert L. Hedlund, minority whip

I didn’t consider myself an “animal protection” person. I wear a leather motorcycle jacket. I sometimes eat meat. And I oppose forming a union for pigeons that “act” in movies, as one of my colleagues is pushing for.

Yet, I am now and have been for several years, one of the Legislature’s leading advocates against cruelty to elephants, and other animal protection issues.

I owe it all to members of the South Shore Humane Society, who brought to my attention one day the physical and mental abuse leveled against non-domestic animals that are forced to perform as part as circuses or traveling exhibits.“Oh sure,” I initially thought. “This sounds like its part of some animal extremist agenda.”

Except that the then President of the South Shore Humane Society didn’t fit the mold of a stereotypical “animal extremist” (which he isn’t). He’s a union pipefitter, a meat eater and a gunowner. And I quickly learned that there is a big distinction between someone who advocates for animal rights and those who advocate for animal protection.

I started to look into the issue and was quickly horrified at what I found. I learned how these animals are often ripped from their mothers while still young, beaten into submission, kept in cages for up to 23 hours a day, and forced to perform unnatural actions that they would never be found doing in nature.

A tiger would never leap through a hoop of fire, for example. A bear would never balance on a giant ball. And an elephant would never sit back on a tree stump, or stand on its hind legs. But these animals are also more terrified of the repercussions from the trainers than performing these strange actions, so they reluctantly go along with the show.

A quick Youtube search will pull up hundreds of videos taken surreptitiously from behind-the-scenes showing the abuse these animals endure, and the mental anguish that results

Elephants arguably face some of the worst abuses. Trainers use a long handled club with a sharp, metal, curved tip called a bullhook, or an ankus. If a trainer feels the need to move an elephant in a certain direction, he or she will hook a soft spot behind the elephants ear with the pointed-end of the ankus, and yank the elephant into position. Some trainers are more direct – they’ll just whack the elephant repeatedly

Don’t be fooled into thinking elephants are protected by a thick, callous skin. It’s soft and it tears easily, just like yours and mine. It doesn’t take much of a whack with the ankus to make an elephant bleed.

Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus is currently awaiting the verdict of a major animal cruelty lawsuit brought against it following the documentation of severe abuse by trainers against elephants that resulted in the injury of a number of elephants and even a couple of deaths.

It is against this backdrop that I have filed for three consecutive legislative sessions now a bill to prohibit cruelty against elephants. Opposition groups led by Ringling Brothers have tried to scare people by saying my bill bans circuses from traveling to Massachusetts. It does not.

Instead, it simply says that handlers cannot abuse elephants. It prohibits the use of ankuses, or any tool, for that matter to beat an elephant. It also prohibits the use of metal ankle shackles to keep an elephant chained up for hours on end.

It provides an exemption for certified zoos, as well as the Southwick Zoo and the Big E Fair.

This legislation is co-sponsored by more than a dozen of my colleagues, from both sides of the aisles, well-respected individuals and organizations such as Jane Goodall, the Humane Society of the United States, Pipefitters Local 537, and a number of elephant sanctuaries around the world.

There are plenty of traveling circuses that put on tremendous shows without the use of non-domestic animals that have been beaten and abused into submission. Children will still be able to visit local zoos and see these amazing, beautiful animals in a natural and humane setting. It is up to us, as adults, to put a stop to the abuse of animals for our entertainment.