America's Accredited Zoos Are Phasing Out Bullhook Use on Elephants: It's a 'Barbaric Device'

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a non-profit that is also an “independent accrediting organization for the best zoos and aquariums in America and the world” is phasing out the use of an old elephant handling tool in all 236 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.

The bullhook is “a rod with a blunt or pointed hook at one end” that has been used for hundreds of years to push elephants into behaving how humans want them too, reports The Washington Post. Recently, unaccredited zoos in America and aboard have been harshly criticized by animal welfare organizations for using the tool to manage elephants.

According to the Post, even with these accusations of neglect aimed at other zoos, and state and city laws that prohibited the use of bullhooks in certain accredited American zoos, the AZA has “defended bullhooks as an essential management tool.”

This position shifted recently when the leaders of the AZA voted unanimously to phase out the use of the bullhook, except in emergency situations, by 2021, an AZA spokesperson confirmed to PEOPLE. By 2023, the AZA plans to phase out all bullhook use. This change will affect 30 AZA-accredited zoos which have elephants and still use bullhooks for guiding the animals, reports the Post.

The outlet also reported that “62 AZA zoos that care for 305 elephants said that they do not use bullhooks or that the changes would have no or little impact on their programs,” figures which the paper received from the AZA’s president and CEO, Dan Ashe.

“The fact that most of our members are not using bullhooks at all and are managing elephants quite successfully indicates that alternative procedures are available,” Ashe told the Post, adding that the AZA thought it was a “good step” to distance itself from a tool that has an “association with archaic, abusive treatment of elephants.”

Animal welfare organizations are supportive of the AZA’s decision to phase out bullhook use.

“The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) welcomes the news that, out of consideration for elephant welfare, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is revising its standards to phase out the use of bullhooks on elephants, as many of its accredited zoos have already done,” Nicole Paquette, chief programs and policy officer at the HSUS, said in a statement.

She added, “a bullhook is an outdated, circus-style training tool that resembles a fireplace poker and is used to inflict pain and punishment on elephants. While most AZA zoos have already switched to more humane and safer elephant handling methods, all circuses and roadside zoos with elephants continue to use this barbaric device.”

HSUS is hopeful overall that this choice will herald other changes to zoo elephant care.

“We share the AZA’s goals of ensuring that all animals receive the best possible care. We hope future revisions to its elephant standards also prohibit imports of wild-caught elephants, expand space requirements and ensure zoos with elephants are located in climates that provide elephants with year-round access to the outdoors,” Paquette said.

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