This is the freedom that the elephant guide and free contact allows.
This is the freedom that the elephant guide and free contact allows.

What happens when you have an animal husbandry tool that has been used for generations and is approved by the USDA, AVMA, EMA, AZA, and ZAA but animal rights activists insist that its use is inherently cruel? What has begun to happen is that tool, the elephant guide is being outlawed, mainly on the city level but currently a ban is possible in the largest state in the country. Even if you don’t have elephants at your facility and have never worked with an elephant this issue directly affects your business. There is a much bigger issue at play here and if you study all the politics involved with this one little tool, the implications for our entire industry will become readily apparent.

The guide is used by zoos, exhibitors, and circus and was adapted from tools that have been used in the elephants range countries for hundreds of years. The animal rights activists didn’t initially come after the guide; first they tried to ban performing animals all together. But they found that to be somewhat challenging because, by and large, the American public likes to go to zoos and the circus, so outright bans on elephant acts were usually unsuccessful. That’s when they changed their strategy; they pushed for bans of the tool that is essential for working elephants in free contact, the guide. This tactic has proven unfortunately to be more successful in the legislative arena. The main area of attack are city councils in America’s large cities that are frequented by circuses and elephant exhibitors.

You see, its much easier for activist groups to tell the public that a tool they’ve never heard of is abusive and should be banned than it is to convince them that they shouldn’t go to zoos or the circus. Slowly but surely they have started to win the propaganda war, not with the truth, but never the less public perception is shifting. Never mind that all the facts are on the side of those who manage elephants in free contact with the guide. The passion and emotion are on the side of the activists and as the old adage goes, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease”.

Playing on the public’s lack of knowledge about elephant husbandry, the animal rights crowd is able to spin their own narrative about what the elephant guide is used for. Elephants who are cared for in free contact are managed using voice commands with the assistance of this highly specialized tool, which you may have also heard referred to as a bullhook. The goal of working an elephant in a free contact system is that the animal will respond to voice commands for general husbandry tasks. However if they don’t respond or are unable to hear you this tool acts as an extension of the handler’s arm and they are able to cue the elephant at specific points to get the elephant to either raise a foot, lie down for a bath, or for vet work. This tool is never meant to be harmful to the elephant in any way, it simply allows someone the size of a person to effectively communicate with an animal that is 9,000-10,000 pounds and work in a harmonious manner.

I know for certain that the elephant guide is not abusive. It is in fact just the opposite. The guide allows elephants’ freedom that those who are managed in protected contact without the guide rarely get to experience. I have grown up in the zoological animal industry and have followed the legislative woes surrounding this issue for the past several years, but it wasn’t until this spring that I became a die hard believer and advocate for the use of the elephant guide. I was blessed with the opportunity to be an elephant care intern at Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey’s Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. During my time at the elephant center I was given the amazing opportunity to work with and around the best in the elephant business, people who are true experts in elephant care and the proper use of the guide.

From the outset it was clear that there was something special about the Center for Elephant Conservation and I knew that there must be a reason why they are able to so successfully maintain North America’s largest and most genetically diverse herd of Asian Elephants. The recipe for their success all starts with this tool. The use of the guide allows for elephant handlers to form a close intimate relationship with these massive creatures based on trust and mutual respect. The elephants at the CEC have access to world-class veterinarians and elephant reproductive specialists, but none of that would lead to the success they have had without the use of the guide. The guide allows the vets and researchers hands on unfettered access to the elephants that would be impossible without the use of this tool. All of that combined with the largess that The Greatest Show on Earth provides has allowed for 26 births since the facility’s inception.

My time at the CEC and my training in the proper use of the guide when handling elephants allowed me to see that it would be a travesty if this husbandry tool were legislated into the history books. The problem we face is that members of the public and our legislator’s opinions’ are not shaped by first hand experience with elephants or big cats or whichever the hot button species of the moment is. All they have to go on is second hand information that is usually supplied by those who don’t support the zoological industry.

It is up to all of us to not only educate the public about all aspects involving animal care regardless of species, but we must stand united as an industry. The same organizations that want to ban the elephant guide also want to see an end to all animals in human care regardless of the species or the animals’ importance to captive conservation efforts. The main lesson that the animal industry must learn from the battle over the elephant guide is to never turn on our own. The animal activists have successfully brought a couple of zoos into their corner that disapprove of free contact with elephants, and they have used that to define the entire elephant industry. To say that the guide isn’t necessary because, a couple of zoos say that it isn’t is outrageous. When other members of our industry join the animal activists on an issue, it not only helps their case legislatively, but it seals the issue for members of the public because if a certain big zoo doesn’t approve of the guide, then it must be cruel.

Above all else it’s essential that we support one another in this industry. We have to present a united front and can’t let our busy daily task of animal care prevent us from fighting for our fellow members of the animal community. Dog breeders, horse racing, circus, agriculture, and zoos are all under attack from the same groups who present a united front when they oppose us, so the least we can do is stand united as well. We in this great organization are the animal care professionals and experts, not the legislators or animal rights activists. It is about time we start to define the narrative on animal care instead of letting those opposed to everything we stand for define it for us. So the next time there is going to be a legislative hearing on the elephant guide or any animal issue, get involved!

—Gavin Livingston