Judge blocks Fulton elephant bullhook ban in Atlanta

The circus is coming to Atlanta, and the troupe will bring its elephant bullhooks with it.

A Fulton Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order Tuesday that blocks the county's ban on the use of bullhooks by circus elephant trainers in Atlanta. The order went into effect as Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus set up for its first show Wednesday.

"We're happy to report that we're opening (Wednesday) night," said Stephen Payne, a Ringling Brothers spokesman. "Our engagement is going to go on as scheduled with all show components. Including the elephants."

Fulton County officials quickly allayed concerns that animal control laws in Atlanta would not be enforced due to the order, which will last for 25 days.

"The county's position is that (the order) is narrowly focused to the usage of bullhooks on elephants," county spokeswoman Ericka Willis said. "Everything else is essentially business as usual."

But Fulton County Commissioner Rob Pitts insisted that Judge John Goger's order prevents the county from providing animal control enforcement in Atlanta with the exception of rabies cases and imminent danger to the public.

Pitts, who attended a hearing in Goger's courtroom Monday, said the judge implied the order hinges on the lack of a specific intergovernmental agreement between Fulton and Atlanta. If there's no agreement, Pitts said, then there's nothing binding about Fulton's animal control ordinances.

"You can't pick and choose which laws you want to follow," Pitts said Tuesday afternoon. "I don't want to do anything that hurts the city of Atlanta. But we have a dilemma  here."

Pitts said he planned to raise the issue at the county commission meeting Wednesday.

Atlanta spokesman Reese McCranie said the city's Law Department was still reviewing the order.

Fulton was the first Georgia jurisdiction to approve a bullhook ban, following cities and counties in Florida, South Carolina, New York, Kentucky and Indiana. County commissioners voted for the ban in June.

A bullhook typically consists of a steel hook and point attached to a three-foot-long handle. The hook is usually inserted into the elephant's skin to make it behave in a certain manner. Animal rights organizations, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have pressed local governments to ban the tool.

Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Brothers, sought injunctive relief from the Fulton's ban Monday because of concerns circus performers wouldn't be able to use bullhooks during their shows, which will run from Wednesday through Feb. 20.

Payne said the circus was "ambushed" by PETA and other animal rights' groups because of their last-minute efforts to expand the bullhook ban to Atlanta.

"We were trying to prevent a PETA-inspired, end-run around due process to stop us," Payne said. ‘When it comes to taking care of elephants and other exotic animals, we really are the experts. Not PETA."

Payne said the guides are needed to ensure the safety of the handlers, audience and elephants.

PETA and other local animal rights organizations plan to protest in front of Phillips Arena on Wednesday afternoon. They have accused Ringling Brothers of abusive treatment of elephants.

"Atlanta residents would run screaming from the big top if they knew how baby elephants are violently forced to perform difficult, confusing, and sometimes painful tricks," PETA Director Delcianna Winders said in a written statement. "We're telling parents that if their kids love animals, the last place they should take them is the circus."

Officials with Atlanta-based UniverSoul Circus, which opened Thursday at Turner Field and will run through Feb. 26, said they were pleased with the judge's order. Their employees have been using bullhooks since the show came to town last week.

“We do not feel that the ordinance passed by unincorporated Fulton County is enforceable,” said Alan Briskin, an attorney for UniverSoul Circus.