Bill would outlaw hooks used on elephants

Dondi, a 34-year-old Asian elephant at Southwick's Zoo in Mendon, displays the strong bond she has with her trainers, Phil Schacht, left, and his son, Joshua.

Dondi, a 34-year-old Asian elephant at Southwick's Zoo in Mendon, displays the strong bond she has with her trainers, Phil Schacht, left, and his son, Joshua.

Elephant trainer Phil Schacht says his pachyderm Dondi is more child than wild animal.

Among her tricks, Dondi can cluck like a chicken, roar like a lion, and play a harmonica. She also enjoys giving spectators rides and posing for photos at Southwick's Zoo in Mendon, according to her handler.

But Schacht, 74, says he's endured repeated threats from animal rights groups that claim his Asian elephant is being mistreated. Now that state Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, has re-filed legislation banning circuses and traveling performers from using devices such as bullhooks on elephants, Schacht says scrutiny will only intensify.

"They think animals are better off running around in the forest but it's not that way anymore," Schacht said.

The Forest Park Zoo in Springfield, the Big E in West Springfield, and any institution accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association is exempted from the bill. Even though the bill exempts Southwick's Zoo, Schacht and other zoo officials said it wouldn't accomplish anything.

Hedlund's bill was the lone subject of a crowded State House hearing yesterday where everyone from animal rights activists to circus owners offered testimony. If passed, the bill would impose maximum fines of $5,000 and prison sentences of one year on handlers who use these devices.

Bullhooks are two-foot-long staffs of metal, wood or plastic with steel hooks on one end used by handlers to control elephants.

Schacht said he typically uses a headless golf club to control Dondi.

"We don't want Dondi to be scared of us," he said. "We want to love her."

Hedlund first filed the bill in late 2004 after learning from a humane society about circus animals being mistreated.

"I think the evidence is out there that this tool is misused by many," Hedlund said. "It often centers around Ringling (Bros.) because they are the biggest entity out there and they do have the most significant number of violations against them."

Several area representatives say they support the bill including state Rep. Jennifer Callahan, D-Sutton; state Sen. Edward Augustus, D-Worcester; state Sen. Karen Spilka, D-Ashland; and state Sen. Scott Brown, R-Wrentham.

Hedlund "feels very strongly elephants are being harmed," said Brown. "He's definitely raised awareness in everybody's eyes."

Archele Hundley of West Virginia, who traveled to the State House to testify at the hearing, was an animal trainer with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. She said she worked with the company from April-June 2006 and quit after witnessing a handler allegedly stick a bullhook in an elephant's ear for refusing to lie down.

Ringling Bros. "believes that if they can keep these animals afraid, they can keep them submissive," Hundley said. "This is how they train their employees to handle these animals."

Ringling Bros., which performed in Boston last week, is currently facing trial in Washington, D.C., for violating the Endangered Species Act. The circus was sued by the Animal Welfare Institute in 2000.

Stephen Payne, an official at Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros., said circus animals received round-the-clock attention. He also said Ringling Bros. facilities are routinely inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"This bill does nothing for animal welfare," Payne said. "Our hope is to prove our animal care is the best in the world and that this lawsuit is completely without merit."

Another circus, Walker Bros., has also faced litigation for alleged elephant abuse. In March 2004, owner John Caudill Jr. and trainer John Caudill III were fined $25,000 and had their license suspended for five years by a Washington, D.C., federal court after admitting to 18 violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

Alan Myers, a spokesman for Walker Bros., said the circus opposes the bill.

"We feel animals should be in the circus," he said. "People should be able to see performing animals on exhibit."

Hedlund said the bill would give the public awareness about what goes on when audiences aren't watching.

"If people and their kids saw what went on behind the scenes to break an animal's spirit to get it to do acts that are unnatural that would certainly take away the fun," he said.

The bill was approved by both the joint Tourism Committee and Senate during the last legislative session. It expired before the House of Representatives could consider it.

"Bullhooks are never used for anything more than to just guide the elephant," said Justine Brewer, Southwick's president. "The elephants respect that."

Dr. Peter Brewer, Justine's son and zoo veterinarian, said bullhooks are also useful in calming elephants down during medical procedures.

"Elephants are usually very hardy," he said. "The tool keeps them under control."

However Steve Feldman, a spokesman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, questioned the bill's necessity. He said anyone who abuses animals already violates the Animal Welfare Act.

"The professionals in accredited zoos love and care for their elephants," said Feldman. "Their interest is in the conservation and protection of elephants, not harming them."

Hedlund's bill has gained support from animal rights groups who allege circuses use bullhooks and chains to abuse their elephants.

"Circuses should make clear to the public that they are using painful devices to control threatened or endangered species," said Helen Rayshick, executive director for the Massachusetts Animal Rights Coalition, in an e-mail. "If (circuses) are being honest, then they don't need those devices and this bill should pose no threat."

RaeLeann Smith, a PETA official, said the organization witnessed several instances where bullhooks were allegedly misused by elephant handlers. She also said if the abuse doesn't stop, elephants would eventually fight back.

"In circuses every moment of an elephant's life is dictated and manipulated," said Smith. "If you have an elephant that is stressed, no bullhook will ever stop it from rampaging."

Whether the bill passes, Schacht says he never wants to betray Dondi's trust. She weighs 8,000 pounds after all.

"I'm not the brightest guy in the world but I know if I got her really ticked off she could hurt me or someone else very badly," he said. "It would be insane to do anything that was going to make her lose her cool."