On Wednesday, December 10, 2014, Oakland became the second city in the United States to ban the use of bull hooks on animals. Despite opposition from Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Brothers Circus, and concerns from labor unions that fear the loss of jobs because of Feld’s threat to pull the circus out of Oakland in 2018 after the ban goes into effect, the ordinance prevailed.
The City of Oakland did the right thing.
The decision came at an interesting time, intersecting with protests and intense public outcry over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. At one point, close to midnight on December 9 and several hours into the marathon city council session, at least a hundred protesters were at the doors of City Hall, and the council considered closing the meeting early.
What’s so prescient about the timing of all this is that in both seemingly unrelated events – the bullhook debate and the protests – the fundamental issue at hand was how we as humans view and treat other living beings. Some people at the meeting pointed out that human lives are more important than those of elephants. Feld representatives framed the bull hook debate as a move against the people of Oakland. Union supporters decried the loss of jobs that would bring financial hardship to working families and to the city if the ban were to be passed. One man expressed his wish for the City Council to care as much about black children as they do about elephants, and council member Lynette Gibson McElhaney abstained from the vote because of the amount of time spent debating the welfare of circus animals given the city’s more pressing issues.
While it’s easy to be sympathetic to these viewpoints, ultimately the positioning of human versus animal is beside the point. Supporting a ban on elephant brutality and wanting justice for young black lives cut short by brutality, are not mutually exclusive. Both issues occupy a unique moment in history and a common stage on which the fate of humanity is being played out. As many supporters of the bullhook ban pointed out, this instrument, which Feld euphemistically refers to as a “guide,” is nothing but a cruel weapon of subjugation. What does its cruel use on our planet’s most intelligent and matriarchal animal teach our own children, and what does it say about how we might treat fellow humans? Are guns and tasers used by officers of the law not also potential instruments of subjugation, as demonstrated in Ferguson and New York, and in our own city of Oakland in 2009 when Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a BART police officer?
The world lately seems to be a very cruel place. But as growing civil unrest AND the bullhook debate converged in Oakland this month, it has also become apparent that society is fed up with brutality … in all its ugly forms. By passing the bull hook ban, the City of Oakland has rejected violence not only under the Big Top, but also among its own citizens.