Elephant bullhook: Insurance, weapon or both?

Bullhook also known as an ankus or a guide

Oregon Zoo elephant Rose-Tu and an elephant keeper, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)
Oregon Zoo elephant Rose-Tu and an elephant keeper, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — It’s called a bullhook, an ankus or a guide. Whatever you call it, it’s a stick usually with a sharp metal tip that is used by Oregon Zoo elephant keepers to train and direct elephants to submit to human commands.

“When you use the word ‘bullhook,’ it’s painting a picture,” said current Oregon Zoo elephant curator Bob Lee. “We work closely with the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and follow all their guidelines. We do use guides to direct the elephants. We have them come over to us and present body parts.”

Examining the records

KOIN 6 News went through the elephants medical records obtained by the non-profit group In Defense of Animals.  Their records range from 1999 to 2005.

KOIN 6 News put in a request to the Oregon Zoo for information on the elephants and the 2008 Oregon Zoo bond from the agency Metro, which oversees the zoo. The quote for the requested information was $17,000.

Rose-Tu

An undated close-up picture of an elephant bullhook (KOIN 6 News)
An undated close-up picture of an elephant bullhook (KOIN 6 News)

In 2000, the Oregon Zoo was cited by the USDA for violating the animal welfare act for causing trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm and abuse.

Lee referred to “excessive and abusive” use with a bullhook on Rose-Tu in a police report filed at the time.

“There was a zoo keeper that was fired back in 1999 for not following zoo guidelines when it came to tool use,” Lee said. “That did happen.”

It was actually April 17, 2000 when Lee was a witness as Rose-Tu was hit with a bullhook 176 times, according to the police report. Lee watched elephant handler Fred Marion attack Rose-Tu for “35 to 40 minutes,” the report said.

“He observed Marion move the hook of the ankus under her tail flap, turn it, and place it into Rose-Tu’s anus. Lee stated that Marion then jerked down twice with the handle of the ankus,” the report states.

Phil Prewett worked for the Oregon Zoo for 27 years. April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)
Phil Prewett worked for the Oregon Zoo for 27 years. April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

Phil Prewett, a 27-year Oregon Zoo employee who worked with the elephants until his retirement three years ago, had the next shift after Marion that day.

Prewett said nothing was written in the log book about the abuse and no one mentioned anything unusual. “I wasn’t informed that I should be looking, anyhow.” Prewett said the elephants were out in the yard when he arrived and he did not notice any markings on Rose-Tu, but he added bullhook markings are difficult to see from a distance.

He said the bullhook abuse Rose-Tu suffered was not reported to the zoo veterinarian until two days later. Zoo staff told police at the time, “It is not unusual for the keepers to administer medical attention to the animals themselves.”

Oregon Zoo officials declined to comment on what Prewett told KOIN 6 News.

He said Marion’s elephant abuse had been going on for months.

“This was a guy who had his skull fractured by an elephant (Tamba) in that barn,” Prewett told KOIN 6 News. When Marion came back to work, he was “hook happy,” Prewett said — he used the bullhook excessively.

“I think it would have been incumbent on the zoo to remove that individual from the barn knowing that he was hook happy because he was counseled on it,” Prewett said.

The police report said the senior elephant keeper knew there was a history. He told detectives he “had to counsel Marion at least a dozen times in the past 18 months for inflicting hook injuries on various elephants.”

Marion was fired in June 1999, the same month it was reported to police — two months after the abuse on Rose-Tu.

Oregon Zoo elephant Rose-Tu and an elephant keeper, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)
Oregon Zoo elephant Rose-Tu and an elephant keeper, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

Zoo-goer complaint

In October 2002 after a zoo-goer complained about seeing ankus use, a zoo veterinarian checked the elephants. The veterinary staff  wrote, “There were ankus injuries found again on Rose-Tu, Sung-Surin (Shine) and Pet.” The medical report states, “he also reported that one of the elephants (the baby- presumably Chendra) shied away from the ankus that was used near her.”

Then in December 2003 ankus marks appear again in the records provided to KOIN 6 News from the non-profit group In Defense of Animals for the Oregon Zoo Elephant.

“Pet may have sustained new ankus content injuries today as keepers communicated poorly with each other about commands being given and Pet was reprimanded in the process,” the records show.

Two days later, Pet’s medical documents confirmed the 48-year-old elephant with numerous foot problems had suffered from a “good deal of ankus contact.”

Margaret Whittaker, the director of care for the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, helped develop some of the basic training terms zoos have adopted. The positive re-enforcement approach is safer, she said.

“When we’re behaving aggressively with these tools that are really weapons, that are designed to hurt and frighten the elephants, then sometimes they say enough is enough,” she told KOIN 6 News.

Whittaker said using a bullhook makes elephants more likely to be aggressive, which “poses a dangerous situation for the handler or trainer.”

The reason a bullhook doesn’t work to correct and guide an elephant is because they have excellent memories, she said. Once a bullhoook is used to hurt an elephant, she said, it will always intimidate them.

There is proposed legislation in California to make bullhooks illegal. Several US zoos have stopped using bullhooks, instead using a type of elephant training developed by Whittaker called “protected contact.”

“Protected contact” means keepers don’t go into the cages or elephants yards without a barrier and they don’t use tools like a bullhook.

The Oregon Zoo’s Bob Lee said they have “welfare-based training. We have elements of protected contact. There is a barrier in place. So it’s not a word, it’s program. So looking at our program people who didn’t know what the words meant, the definition behind them might say we’re in protected contact.”

Jeff Kinzley, the elephant curator at the Oakland Zoo, said dropping the bullhook means a better environment at his zoo. That zoo switched to protected contact after a keeper was trampled by an aggressive elephant in 1991.

“Allowing the elephants to be elephants and do what they wish to do, if they want to interact with the keepers they can,” Kinzley said. “If they don’t feel like it that day they don’t have to.”

A census data study showed, on average, one person is killed by an elephant at work each year.

An Oregon Zoo elephant and an elephant keeper, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)
An Oregon Zoo elephant and an elephant keeper, April 2015 (KOIN 6 News)

That doesn’t surprise Prewett, who said inexperienced keepers standing next to a 13,000 pound elephant can be heavy handed.

“Back in my time, myself, I inflicted some hook wounds,” Prewett said. “It’s the only insurance you have is that hook.”

Fred Marion

The Multnomah County Distrct Attorney’s office declined to prosecute Fred Marion because the anti-cruelty statute required proof that Rose-Tu suffered “substantial pain.” Prosecutors believed that was impossible to prove.

However, the abuse Rose-Tu suffered served to show Oregon legislators a change to the state law was needed was needed to clarify the definition. The next year Oregon Senate Bill 230 passed.

There were several changes to Oregon’s animal protection laws, including a definition of physical injury that got rid of the need to provide evidence of pain in abuse cases.

The new standard only stated that there needed to be evidence of “physical trauma.” That includes things like: “fractures or bruises, burns or cuts.”

Fred Marion has since died.

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