Austin votes to ban controversial elephant training device

What's a circus without the elephants? Well it depends one who you ask.

"All of those poor elephants it's kind of sad to see them all on chains," says 12-year-old Olivia Korensky.

"It's almost universally accepted that an elephant used by any circus or to give rides is going to be subjected to forcible training," adds Austin For Cruelty Free Entertainment organizer Ernest Samudio. 

Training that some say is put into play many times in undercover videos. One of those videos, shown to the Austin City Council on Thursday, was of Ringling Brother's trainers herding their elephants using a device called a "bullhook".

"I've seen the damage that bullhooks have done to these highly social very sensitive animals, and so I have always been against the captivity of elephants and the bullhook," says Olivia's mother Nicole. They were two of the dozens who showed up to a City Council hearing on Thursday to support a ban on any use of bullhooks in Austin. The group brought along a petition with 5,000 signatures.

"It's a sharp instrument used to poke, jab, and hit elephants on certain parts of their body," says Samudio. "They have to respond. That's what they are trained to do."

Bill Swain drove more than 200 miles to oppose the ban. "The burden of proof here in many ways would fall on the circus," he says of cruelty inflicted on elephants. "If they have someone doing this they need to fire the guy immediately. I wouldn't tolerate the guy." 

Swain has the only privately owned elephants in Texas. "We do things for educational programs or we have someone who wants to have a Hindu wedding (an Indian wedding), a big one, I'll have an elephant." 

Swain says he uses the bullhook though he says relies mostly on verbal commands. But he says, the bullhook, if used responsibly, is not different than a dog collar. "It's an accepted tool and it's for the safety of the animal, and the safety of the people around. It's a reliable instrument, to try to reinvent something here would be difficult."

But it looks like he will have to. After hearing testimony from both sides, the City Council voted 10-1 in favor of the ban. Council Member Don Zimmerman was the only one to oppose it. The ban goes into effect in October 2016. Austin joins at least 50 other cities in the U.S. that now prohibit the device. 

Swain left the hearing defeated. "What's to prevent them from coming back next year and outlawing that?" He may be disappointed but the littlest activist couldn't be prouder. "I'm like really excited," says Olivia. 

The ordinance's main sponsor, Mayor Pro Tem Kathleen Tovo, had proposed a start date of September 2015 but the Council moved it back because that's when the Irwin Center's contract with the Ringling Brothers Circus expires.