The Association of Zoos and Aquariums announced it is phasing out the use of bullhooks for routine elephant care and training at member zoos by the start of 2021. The accrediting organization's board also approved a statement of intent to completely end the use of bullhooks except in emergencies and for nonroutine medical care by 2023.
The decisions, which were widely reported this past August, will affect roughly 30 zoos that still use bullhooks to various degrees.
Although the AZA would not comment for this article, Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the AZA, explained in an Aug. 21 interview with The Washington Post that the decision was not inspired by concerns about elephant welfare at AZA member zoos. Rather, he said, the board wanted its standards to "reflect modern zoological practice."
In an internal survey this summer, nearly 80% of the 62 AZA zoos that care for 305 elephants said they do not use bullhooks or the changes would have no or little impact on their programs, Ashe told the Post.
"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 said. Additionally, given the instrument's historical association with abusive treatment of elephants, "the board decided this was a good step."
Nicole Paquette, chief programs and policy officer for the Humane Society of the United States, welcomed news that the AZA had revised its standards regarding the use of bullhooks.
"A bullhook is an outdated, circus-style training tool that resembles a fireplace poker and is used to inflict pain and punishment on elephants," Paquette said in a statement. She said circuses and roadside zoos with elephants continue to use bullhooks.
"We share the AZA's goals of ensuring that all animals receive the best possible care," Paquette said. "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."
California and Rhode Island have banned the use of bullhooks, as have as more than a dozen city and county governments around the country.