If you thought Richmond’s elephant controversy had lumbered out of town with the circus last weekend, get ready for more debate.
The UniverSoul Circus is bringing its disco-dancing elephants and other acts to the Richmond International Raceway from March 16-27.
And elephant handlers may still use bull hooks, because Henrico County, where the raceway is located, has no ordinance against using them. Richmond passed an ordinance prohibiting bull hooks last year, but it won't take effect until 2018.
The tools, which resemble fireplace pokers, have come under fire at such circuses as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and zoos throughout the country. Animal rights activists say they inflicts pain on the elephants.
The controversy is moot with Ringling Bros., which brought its world-renowned elephant acts to Richmond for possibly the last time over the weekend. The company had announced plans to phase out its elephant acts by 2018, but decided to pull them earlier, citing public opinion.
In keeping with Ringling’s original timeline, Richmond City Council — like some other localities — passed an ordinance prohibiting the bull hook. But it won’t go into effect until 2018, meaning the tools may be used locally.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals criticized UniverSoul after an elephant was allegedly led off the stage with a bull hook during a performance in Atlanta last February. Cell phone video shows several unsuccessful attempts by a handler to lead the elephant off stage but was inconclusive as to how the elephant was eventually led offstage. The charge against the director was dropped and the trainer was found not guilty.
When asked about the treatment of its elephants, UniverSoul emailed Style a copy of its animal rights policy.
“We strongly oppose any form of cruelty or mistreatment of animals, wild or domestic — and will not tolerate any mistreatment on our circus site,” the statement reads. “UniverSoul Circus understands and supports all efforts to monitor and regulate the treatment of animals. As such, we work closely with federal, state and local rules, ordinances and regulations.”
Circus spokesman Hank Ernest also says that UniverSoul owns none of the animals used and contracts outside trainers and presenters.
Virginia’s General Assembly considered the issue during its recent session, prompted by legislation from Delegate Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, with the support of 30 groups, including the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk.
Rasoul proposed the bill, which would have prevented the use of bull hooks throughout Virginia, after receiving reports of alleged mistreatment of an African elephant named Asha, kept at the Natural Bridge Zoo. But the legislation died last month.
The bill was opposed by Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. The Roanoke Times quoted a Richmond lobbyist representing the company as saying that the bull hook was necessary to control elephants in the arena.
Following the bill’s death, Rasoul wrote, “We hope that the attention brought to the issue will lead to a more comprehensive change in the future.”
Editor's note: This story reflects a correction to the print version, which didn't note that the raceway was located in Henrico County, not within city limits. This story also clarifies the circumstances surrounding an incident involving an elephant trainer affiliated with the UniverSoul Circus. We apologize for the errors.