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In Atlanta, a legal sideshow over training of circus elephants

February 14, 2012 |  7:35 am

In Atlanta, the storied Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is coming to town  this week. At the same time, a legal sideshow has sprouted up over the question of how to handle elephants humanely.

At issue is the use of an ancient, and some say cruel, tool used in the training and control of elephants. Known as a bullhook, or ankus, it is typically a long shaft with a metal hook at the end that is used to prod, and sometimes punish the animals. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals alleges that in the Ringling Bros. circus, "elephants are beaten, hit, poked, prodded and jabbed with sharp hooks, sometimes until bloody."

Concern about the use of bullhooks prompted commissioners in Fulton County, Ga., which includes much of Atlanta, to ban the use of the instruments in June, following the lead of municipalities in Florida, New York, and other states, according to Johnny Edwards of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

At the time, an official with Feld Entertainment, the owner of Ringling Bros., said that if bullhooks were banned, it would be impossible to have elephants at the circus.

This week, a county judge issued a temporary restraining order that prevents the county from enforcing animal control laws in the city, according to the paper.

Fulton County Commissioner Rob Pitts, who voted for the ban last year, said that the legal question revolves around the lack of a specific intergovernmental agreement between Atlanta and the county, which provides animal control for the city for a fee.

It is unclear what any of this means for Ringling Bros., which plans to roll into downtown Atlanta's Philips Arena on Wednesday for a six-day engagement. But presumably it means that the show will go on.


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-- Richard Fausset in Atlanta

Photo: Elephants are a draw for circus-goers; their treatment is an issue in several cities, including Atlanta. Here, young children line the sidewalk to watch elephants from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus parade by in Washington in 2009. Credit: Shawn Thew/EPA