The bullhook — a rod with a blunt or pointed hook at one end — has been used for centuries to get elephants to do humans’ bidding. And although the tool is now associated with some of the worst abuses of the hulking animals and prohibited in several cities and states, it has remained in use at top American zoos.

That is set to change. The board of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an accrediting organization that previously defended bullhooks as essential management tools, recently voted to phase out the instrument’s use in routine elephant care and training by the start of 2021. It also approved a statement of intent to completely end the use of bullhooks except in emergencies and non-routine medical care by 2023. The decisions will affect about 30 zoos that still use bullhooks to varying degrees, according to the AZA.

Dan Ashe, president and CEO of the association, said in an interview that the change was not inspired by concerns about elephant welfare at member zoos, which he said use bullhooks in limited circumstances as “guides.” Instead, he said, the board wanted its standards to “reflect modern zoological practice.” In an internal survey this summer, nearly 80 percent of the 62 AZA zoos that care for 305 elephants said that they do not use bullhooks or that the changes would have no or little impact on their programs, he said.

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“The fact that most of our members are not using bullhooks at all and are managing elephants quite successfully indicates that alternative procedures are available,” Ashe said. Given that, he added, “and its historical association with archaic, abusive treatment of elephants, the board decided this was a good step.”

The decision comes as scrutiny of elephant captivity grows alongside an expanding body of research documenting the animals’ keen intelligence, complex social structures and unique physical and psychological needs. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ended in 2017 following public pressure and local laws that forced it to retire its famed elephant acts. Some zoos have closed their elephant exhibits, citing ethical concerns. This week, members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species are considering a proposal that would restrict the sale of wild African elephants to zoos in the United States and elsewhere.

The AZA’s shift on bullhooks is “a long-overdue move to protect elephants from a weapon whose only purpose is to inflict pain or evoke the fear of pain,” said Rachel Mathews, deputy director of captive animal law enforcement at the PETA Foundation. Nicole Paquette, chief programs and policy officer at the Humane Society of the United States, said she was “encouraged” by the AZA’s phaseout of a “horrible, outdated training tool.” Both groups called on the association to go further, including by opposing the import of wild elephants.

The new bullhook policy follows an AZA decision in 2011 to prohibit most “free contact” between keepers and elephants and instead manage the animals primarily through barriers. That move, made to protect keepers after high-profile deaths, ended the use of bullhooks at many zoos with elephants. But at others, the tools — also known as ankuses or goads — have continued to be used through the barriers to tap, prod, push and pull the animals.

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The 2011 decision was controversial within zoos. Some closed their elephant exhibits in response, and one, the Pittsburgh Zoo, left the association over what it called a “philosophical difference of opinion.” Some people with ties to the industry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal discussions, said similar discord is simmering over the bullhook policy.

Ashe said only a “small segment” of zoos protested the move. A spokeswoman for one that has faced criticism recently for its use of bullhooks, the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, R.I., said on Tuesday that the facility would comply with the change.

“This is a great decision by the board. If you’re not pushing forward and raising standards, everyone kind of gets held hostage by intransigent members,” said Otto Fad, an animal behavior consultant who did away with bullhooks and free contact when he was hired in 2004 as elephant manager at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, where he worked until 2017. “I think it took some guts knowing what resistance they were going to face doing this.”

Fad described bullhooks as “aversive” tools, even if they aren’t used to beat elephants. A bit of pressure can be an uncomfortable and powerful signal to an elephant, as can the mere presence of a bullhook, he said.

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“From a behavioral standpoint, what do you do if mild discomfort isn’t enough? You’re going to push a little bit harder,” said Fad, who trains zoos and aquariums on positive reinforcement methods, which emphasize rewards. “If someone pulls a knife on you, you don’t have to get stabbed to respect it. Especially any animal that’s ever been abused by one, they know exactly what it is.”

Rob Shumaker, president of the AZA-accredited Indianapolis Zoo, describes the tool very differently. He said the zoo’s staff uses it only to “cue” an elephant, and mostly as an arm extension when dealing with the enormous animals. Recently, he said, he observed the dental exam of one of the tallest of the zoo’s six African elephants. The animal’s mouth wasn’t open quite wide enough for the veterinarian to be able to see inside, he said.

“So the trainer just took the ankus and tapped underneath the trunk near his mouth and asked him to lift his trunk up higher. And he did,” Shumaker said.

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Asked what he thought about the AZA decision, Shumaker did not offer a ringing endorsement. But he said his zoo would adapt.

“I know two things with certainty. We only use an ankus in a helpful, positive way here, and I know that there is a misperception in the public about how an ankus is used with elephants. And that misperception is a big problem,” he said. “If this helps change public perception, then we’re all better off as a result.”

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