What is the Bullhook and Why Do Elephant Handlers Use It?

Zoos Do More Harm Than Good home

What is the Bullhook? 

The bullhook — also known as an elephant goad, ankus, or elephant hook — is a rod usually made of steel or bronze, fitted with a sharp, metal-tipped hook. In appearance, it closely resembles a fireplace poker. 

The bullhook is a weapon.

Why Do Elephant Handlers Use Bullhooks?

Bullhooks are used by zoos and circuses to inflict pain and fear, for the ultimate purpose of controlling and disciplining elephants. 

Elephants are wild animals. They are not domesticated and have their own ideas as to what they want to do, and how they want to live. Bullhooks are used to coerce elephants to do humans’ bidding. 

Elephants are vastly larger and more powerful than humans. To dominate elephants, zoos and circuses exploit fear and learned helplessness to extract obedience out of these beautiful beings. 

In this process, elephants, who are autonomous, sentient creatures with intelligence, social lives, and the ability to suffer, are rendered subservient. 

How Is A Bullhook Used?

Both ends of the bullhook inflict damage. 

The sharp hook is jabbed into sensitive parts of the elephant's body, including behind the ears, around the eyes, around the mouth, on the trunk, and on the feet to cause pain and inflict injury. 

The hook also makes for an effective grip for the handler to hold onto, however, and the trainer can use it to swing the bullhook like a bat. 

Even a small amount of pressure can be a powerful signal to the elephant that worse abuse is sure to follow if they do not behave as expected. 

But after the initial abuse and submission are inflicted, the bullhook doesn’t even have to be applied to the elephant’s skin to have an effect. 

The mere presence of a bullhook is enough to strike terror into an elephant. 

“If someone pulls a knife on you, you don’t have to get stabbed to respect it. Especially any animal who has ever been abused by one, they know exactly what it is,” 

-Otto Fad, an animal behavior consultant

The bullhook’s appearance is so menacing that a California activist was charged with possessing a deadly weapon when she used a bullhook in an educational display!


Where there’s an imprisoned elephant, there’s usually a bullhook close by.

Do Bullhooks Hurt Elephants?

Yes, in two ways. 

Bullhooks physically harm elephants. An elephant’s skin ranges in thickness from one inch across the back and hindquarters, to paper-thin around the eyes and mouth, inside the ears, and at the anus. And these are precisely the same locations elephant handlers apply the bullhook. 

In places the elephant's skin is so thin they can feel the pain of an insect bite. 

Bullhooks also psychologically harm elephants. What impact would you expect physical abuse and learned helplessness to have on a human? The same effects are seen in elephants who have been dominated by bullhooks. Trauma, depression, and emotional stress are all documented. 

Elephants held captive in zoos and circuses famously display stereotypical behaviors, or stereotypies, which are often monotonous, obsessive, repetitive actions that serve no purpose. Stated plainly, these are displays of mental anguish made visible by abnormal behavior.

Captivity alone can cause stereotypical behaviors, physical abuse is not required. But bullhooks, when they are present, contribute to an environment of fear and intimidation that causes trauma and abnormal behaviors. 

Are Bullhooks Legal?

Though two states and 15 city or county governments have banned the use of bullhooks, for the most part they are legal. 

Scandalously, the federally regulated Animal Welfare Act does not prohibit bullhook use. 

In Conclusion

Bullhooks are weapons whose sole purpose is the abuse and intimidation of captive animals. 

They are also powerful symbols of the types of institutions zoos and circuses are. 

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