Time to ban barbaric tools of the circus trade

By Debbie Leahy

The recent death of an animal groom at a Shrine-sponsored circus in Pennsylvania is a tragic end to an already tragic situation. Elephants have been beaten, battered and broken by the circus industry. Is it any wonder they snap from the stress?

Bullhooks look like a fireplace poker—they are batons with a sharp metal hook on the end. They are the standard tool that circuses use to break and manage elephants. These ugly devices are designed to cause pain and can rip and tear skin and leave bloody wounds.

Longtime elephant trainer Tim Frisco was caught on videotape viciously attacking terrified elephants with bullhooks and electric prods during an elephant training seminar. Frisco instructs other trainers to hurt the elephants until they scream and to sink the bullhook into their flesh and twist it. He also cautions that the beatings must be concealed from the public. The elephant who killed the groom in Pennsylvania is believed to belong to Terry Frisco, Tim Frisco’s brother.

Let’s imagine this scenario. A man with a dog act is hired to perform at a kids’ party. He doesn’t have the dog on a leash, he just carries a fireplace poker. When he wants the dog to walk with him, he uses the metal hook on the poker to catch the dog under the chin and yank. When the dog takes more than a step or two away from him, the man uses the poker to jab the dog under her armpit or behind her ear until she is so frightened that she stops moving and just cowers.

Can you picture how upset the children would be? Can you imagine any parent paying someone to do that in front of their children? And yet, that’s exactly what generations of parents have been paying the circus to do—to elephants.

Whenever a captive animal crushes, drowns or mauls a trainer or bystander, those who profit from their misery are quick to write it off as “play” gone awry, or they claim that the animal was trying to “protect” the person from some unsubstantiated threat. Such explanations are transparently self-serving and downright disingenuous.

Elephants are exceedingly intelligent animals who know the difference between play and aggression. A few years ago, an elephant at the Pittsburgh Zoo fatally crushed a handler who had been prodding her with a bullhook. Only months earlier at the zoo, an elephant injured a former Ringling Bros. Circus elephant trainer who had been hired by the zoo, causing a collapsed lung and leg injuries. There’s nothing puzzling about an abused animal finally deciding that they’ve had enough.

Recently, Bolivia imposed the world’s most comprehensive ban on the use of animals in circuses, prohibiting both domestic and exotic species. Singapore, India, Finland, Austria and many other countries around the world have also placed restrictions on the use of animals in circuses.

It’s long overdue for our federal authorities to—at the very least—ban bullhooks once and for all. And it’s time for parents and grandparents to say “enough” by opening their hearts and closing their wallets.

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