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Council not likely to ban bullhooks this year

Thursday, August 6, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

Based on a discussion at a work session on Tuesday, City Council is not likely to ban the use of the bullhook — a common elephant training tool — in circuses before Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey comes to Austin on Aug. 19.

“I understand the interest in not having this take effect immediately when the circus is coming to town in two weeks, but I would urge my colleagues to think about a date that is not years out,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo.

Ringling Bros. has announced that it will stop using elephants in its circuses in 2018.

The ordinance — which also bans the use of food, water and rest deprivation, electricity, breaking of skin and other cruel forms of punishment that could be used to train elephants in circuses — is on today’s Council agenda. It would set a $200 fine for each offense.

Complicating the issue are enforcement questions, due to the fact that the circus will be held at the Frank Erwin Center, which is University of Texas property. If Council were to pass the ordinance, the UT Police Department would be responsible for enforcing it, which would likely require some coordination between the city and the university.

In addition, public speakers at a Council Health and Human Services Committee meeting in June expressed disagreements about whether bullhooks are inherently cruel devices or acceptable tools that can be misused.

Trista Adams, representing Ringling Bros. parent company Feld Entertainment, said at that meeting that banning bullhooks would prevent the company from coming to Austin until it retires its elephants.

Council Member Ora Houston said she would not consider moving forward with the ordinance unless the effective date is pushed substantially further out and noted the Ringling Bros. retirement plan. “The members of my community will not be able to see a pachyderm live if this is instituted and the effective date is before the circus gets here in August,” she said.

“It’s again, for me, an equity issue,” Houston added. “My kids can see things in books, but are not allowed to see them up close and personal. And so the pachyderms are the largest creature — well, that may be the whale — that they will ever be able to see, and by saying that (the circuses) can’t use this instrument to help guide and move them around our city, I’m not going to be able to support that.”

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