17/03/2015 17:39 GMT | Updated 17/05/2015 06:12 BST

Ringling Elephants and the Ankus - Is It Time to Let Circuses Off the Hook?


Me and the Elephant: Author Douglas McPherson meets one of the last elephants to appear in a British circus.

The news that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus is to phase out its iconic elephant parade has been hailed as a victory for the animal rights groups that have campaigned against them for decades.

But I think the battle has been won in the hearts and minds of legislators rather than the circus-going public, who continue to fill US arenas with audiences of several thousand per show, and who are apparently happy to watch other animals perform, including a lion and tiger act presented by Britain's Alex Lacey.

As a spokesman for Ringling owners Feld Entertainment put it, "We looked across the legislative landscape and it's become a patchwork quilt of unnecessary restrictions and prohibitions... we're not in the business of fighting city hall."

In short, Los Angeles and some other US cities have either banned or are considering banning the ankus, the traditional tool for guiding elephants. The ankus, also known as an elephant goad or bull-hook is a two or three-foot-long stick with a metal point and hook on one end and is the only means of controlling an elephant in what's known as free contact management. That is, where elephant and handler are in an unenclosed space such as a street or circus ring. Not using an ankus would be the equivalent of walking a horse through a public space without a rein.

With the ankus outlawed, Ringling has the choice of leaving its elephants out of the show or taking its show out of the city. For an entertainment company that needs to be where the crowds are, that's a simple decision.

But is banning the ankus justified?

Opponents see the bull-hook as an instrument of pain and punishment. Sadly, there is much video evidence of hooks being used in an abusive way. Fed a diet of such images by animal rights groups, it's no wonder many legislators and members of the public believe that is the ankus' only purpose.

Elephant handlers, however, maintain the ankus is a simple guiding tool which, when used correctly, is no more detrimental to an elephant than a horse rider's crop or spurs, or the bit in a horse's mouth.

When Anne the elephant was moved from a circus to Longleat safari park, animal rights groups were perturbed to see that her new handlers continued to use the ankus. The park's director Dr Jonathan Cracknell defended the practise, stating it was "not a tool of domination... but more akin to that of a rope on a horse, used to guide her in the right direction and communicate what we need her to do."

Zoo elephants have always been trained to facilitate washing, veterinary procedures and movement between enclosures. Traditionally, many have been taught circus tricks or used to give rides to the public, because the physical exercise and mental engagement is good for their health.

The Management Guidelines for The Welfare of Zoo Animals - Elephants, published by the British & Irish Association of Zoos & Aquariums (BIAZA) sets out how an ankus can be used in conjunction with positive reinforcement and the association with verbal commands to train elephants in a humane way.

For example, to get an elephant to move forward, the handler touches its back leg with the hook. When the elephant moves away from the hook, the action is rewarded with a treat (food) and verbal praise. With repetition, the action eventually becomes associated with a verbal command and the hook is only needed as an occasional prompt to guide direction.

To see the ankus used correctly, watch this video of Willie Thieson, the elephant manager of a zoo in Pittsburgh, showing TV news presenter Sally Wiggin how to use a hook to make an elephant lie down for a veterinary procedure. "The hook is not as sharp as it looks," Wiggins observes, "and I barely had to touch her to get a response."

Having interviewed several circus trainers for my book Circus Mania, I tend to believe that most treat their animals well. It's also probably the case that most innovations in animal training grew from the uncommonly close relationship between circus trainers and their animals. The inventor of the modern circus, horseman Philip Astley, for example, is said to have used clicker conditioning more than 200 years before it became the current buzzword for training pets.

That little is known about circus training is unsurprising - a magician doesn't spoil his illusions with a banal explanation. But the secrecy of the circus community has fuelled suspicion of cruelty. It's human nature to distrust those who live differently from us and to apply sinister connotations to things we don't understand.

With anti-circus campaigners often seeming to have the only voice in the media, perhaps it's time for circuses to swap mystique for openness, put more emphasis on education and show us how they work with their animals. In turn, perhaps legislators can focus on regulation, the raising of standards and the rooting out of bad apples, rather than taking the simplest option of a ban.

This post originally appeared on the author's blog

Image copyright blogger's own.