Will Massachusetts seize the chance to help abused elephants?

Issue April 2014 By Karen Rabinovici

After multiple attempts at becoming a law, a fledgling bill gets a hearing

Elephants, the largest living land-dwelling animals, have become an iconized source of fascination in our culture. In nature, female elephants spend their entire lives in close family groups, with different groups bonding with one another. The center of the group is the calf, which relies on its mother for as long as three years. Elephants have complex communication systems using sight, smell, sound and the all-important touch. They are typically gentle creatures and are believed to have self-awareness and cognition, and show empathy for their dying or dead.

However, all of these natural tendencies of elephants are thwarted by life in captivity.

Elephants have very unfortunately become a cornerstone of wildlife entertainment. In captivity, these magnificent creatures endure abusive and violent treatment at the hands of their caretakers. Trainers use sharp metal or steel-tipped prods, usually called bull hooks (similar to a fire poker) which can puncture and tear elephant skin, or be used like a baseball bat. Trainers strike elephants for no purpose other than to cause pain and fear to coerce the elephant to perform unnatural and nonsensical tricks.

Captive elephants are also subject to chaining. Chaining severely restricts an elephant's movements, prohibiting it from lying down, walking and socializing. Chaining can cause neurotic psychological behavior, physical injury and death. In fact, chaining causes foot problems and arthritis, which are the leading causes of euthanasia for captive elephants. None of these issues are observed in wild elephants. Despite trainers' attempts to conceal wounds, these industry methods are no secret, as Kenneth Feld, the owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus admitted under oath in 2009. These methods are also chronicled in the upcoming HBO documentary, "An Apology to Elephants."

Enter S. 1626, An Act Relating to the Treatment of Elephants. This bill, which has been bounced around for several years, was heard before the Massachusetts legislature's Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development Committee on Feb. 3, 2014. This bill would prohibit the use of bull hooks and chains on elephants performing in Massachusetts. Why hasn't this bill yet become a law in Massachusetts, a state that prides itself on being progressive and enlightened? Massachusetts is already behind more than 35 other local jurisdictions in the United States that have restricted the use of elephants or the use of bull hooks on elephants. S. 1626 was filed by Sen. Robert L. Hedlund, who serendipitously became passionate about the issue when a constituent he met at the gym brought it to his attention - an example of the power of one. Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, reported that the hearing had a large showing from constituents, legislators, animal protection groups and animal experts.

One such expert is Scott Blais, co-founder and CEO of Global Sanctuary for Elephants, the first and largest habitat sanctuary for rescued elephants. With more than 25 years of experience working with elephants, he initially learned with the bull hook. He provided compelling testimony, calling these methods sadistic, barbaric, archaic, and abusive, and he discredited every argument in favor of them. He also testified about the other non-violent methods of training that are available, but willfully ignored. In a letter to the committee, he states, "There is no way for me to truly convey the intensity, the depth of fear, the echoing, hollow, empty sound of their screams, these are sounds of complete despair."

If the committee votes in favor of S. 1626, it will hopefully progress until it reaches the Senate floor. When asked why the bill, which seems like a no-brainer, has been met with adversity, Holmquist responded that it's a process for people to reconcile their belief that something is pure, fun, family entertainment with the fact that it is actually inhumane and violent.

There is no shortage of evidence supporting the need to ban bull hooks and chains. If such treatment were used on dogs, the public would be outraged. It's time for Massachusetts to live up to its reputation, and to contribute to the alleviation of the suffering of captive elephants.

For further information on the intersection of the law and animal rights, please consider joining the MBA's Animal Law Practice Group.