A Bad Workman Always Blames His Tools


There are elephant-friendly organisations and parks around the world that actively campaign against the use of hooks on elephants.  They claim that the hooks are used to abuse elephants.  I agree with them that hooks are often misused by mahouts who, for whatever reason, do not make the grade of competent elephant carer and must resort to violence.  But to ban them outright?  I must disagree.  According to the “Elephant Care Manual for Mahouts and Camp Managers”, a sort of bible on captive elephant management produced by Richard Lair and veterinarian Taweepoke Angkawanith, both of the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, the hook is the mahouts most important tool.  The second most important tool is the ever practical bush knife.

Here is an excerpt from the manual:

Controlling elephants depends on three interrelated factors: (1) the level of training of the mahout, (2) the tools or equipment used, and (3) the best ways of using the tools. A weakness in any of these areas means that both safety and the elephant’s health are likely to be affected.

As for the quality of training of mahouts, there are disturbing signs that contemporary mahouts are losing many of the skills of the old days. This lack of skills is very likely to in the near future show up as poorer control of bull elephants, most of which are dangerous, at least part of the time. Training is, however, beyond the scope of this book…

The hook [ankus, bull hook] is the mahout’s most important tool. It should be with him at all times when he is with the elephant, and he should know how to use it in such a way as to not injure the elephant. Beginning mahouts should be repeatedly told that the real purpose of the hook is not to cause pain but rather to apply strong, clear pressure to very particular control points that the elephant has been trained to react to (stop, turn left, turn right, kneel, stand still, etc.).

The hook also extends the mahout’s reach – like doubling the length of his arm.
The hook should be of a suitable size and design for the mahout’s hand and for the size and nature of the elephant. The head should be on tight, and the handle should be neither broken nor slippery. The point should not be so sharp as to easily pierce the skin of the elephant.

* Never strike the elephant, especially its head, with the hook’s point.
* Never, except for the most extreme emergencies, use the shaft of the hook to strike around the eyes or eyebrows, as this can cause injuries and even blindness.
* Never use the point of the hook in the ear [auditory canal].

…Maintaining full control over elephants is a key part of the mahout’s job. Beyond ensuring that work will be done properly and efficiently, full control ensures the safety of the mahout, the safety of other humans nearby, and even the safety of the elephant itself.

I would never go into an interaction with a horse without carrying my preferred tool: a whip.  Rest assured my days of using it to inflict pain are in the past, but that does not mean that the whip is not an important and versatile tool.  Large animals can reach much further than the human arm and sometimes it is simply a matter of staying out of the kick or swipe zone.  A whip becomes an extension my person, allowing me to express myself in horse language more effectively than just with my body alone.  I can use it to “nip” at the rump of a rude horse who is testing me, set my person boundary, as well as comfort a nervous animal by stroking, while keeping my eminently breakable body safe.

I have been in a situation where three horses that I did not know came under my charge.  My first day of feeding them I very nearly lost my teeth as they jostled amongst themselves with a fair amount of aggression, all of us sliding around in the mud, them invaded my personal space with their hooves and rumps.  The next day I made sure to carry the whip at all times, instead of leaving it by the door.  It only took them about five minutes for them to get the message that I wanted all three standing in a line with their heads down, accomplished through a relaxed posture and getting less relaxed at the horse who was doing any undesirable behaviour (negative reinforcement – increasing a desired behaviour through removing a stimulus).

Without the whip, I surely would soon have been kicked and injured, as waving my arms didn’t quite translate to “angry tail swish meaning give me space” as well as a whip.  Had I used the whip to beat them, you can be sure the violence would only have increased on both sides.  Whips are not evil.  Neither, for that matter, are spurs.  Despite what you see in cowboy movies, spurs are not pointy things used to dig into a horses belly in order to outrun those nasty Indians.  For those of you not familiar with spurs, they are metal tools tied to the riders heel and applied to the side of the horse.

A large, blunt object, like a hand or heel, cannot communicate very well the multitude of signals that make up a discourse with an animal about which direction you will go together, how fast you will get there and when you will be considered to have arrived.  Using a spur instead of a heel on the side of a horse allows the rider to communicate several different actions clearly by touching the horse in specific areas.  The heel, larger and more clunky, cannot communicate with such clarity.  This refined conversation developed into the art of dressage, first utilised in warfare as far back as the ancient Greeks and now a competitor sport.  The tool arose from the riders need to keep their hands free for fighting, while maintaining full control of the horse.

It is the same with elephants.  Using the blunt tip of a hook allows for the mahout to touch the elephants head in different places, exerting controlled pressure in order to communicate clearly speed and direction.  I imagine the hook shape grew out of the necessity of angles in reaching the forehead from the position of sitting on the neck.  Many people dismount their horses with bleeding puncture wounds from their (blunt) spurs.  Because of this, I used to think spurs were for making a lazy horse “go”, until I learned what they were really for.  The wooden cooking spoon was not designed to cause pain to the tender bottoms of babes, but generations of Irish mothers have adapted it quite well to the purpose.

There is some truth in saying that a mahout feels naked and possibly afraid without his hook, but this is not because he cannot beat the animal if it misbehaves.  Most animal trainers have something – a whistle, clicker, whip, leash, watergun, pocketful of food – that becomes an extension of themselves when with their animals.  It is not that they are ineffective without them, but they make up a part of the language developed together with that animal.  Alienating the majority of mahouts who refuse to give up using hooks is, in my opinion, counter productive to any campaign for the better treatment of captive elephants.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: bribing an elephant to follow you around as you constantly put food in its mouth is not positive reinforcement training; it is a dangerous practice that exerts little to no control over the elephant.  There are still plenty of fine mahouts who know how to wield the tools of their trade with skill and who I’m sure are willing to pass on their knowledge to the younger generations.


2 responses »

  1. Thanks for you posts Carol. They are always extremely interesting and enlightening and you have afresh and inquisitive perspective that is often lacking in this debate.
    My experience of hooks is that they are often used as a weapon but that hardly means they have to be. Hooks are not as much of a problem as the context that they are so often used in which can result in their misuse. I have yet to meet anyone controlling elephants in free contact environments that don’t use hooks of something else to fill their place – and this is where the biggest problem can lie, with unclear and homemade substitutes that don’t communicate anything to the animal except something to fear. A fearful animal is a dangerous one, doubly so fro an elephant.

    • Good point Karl – it is essential to be able to communicate clearly and the hook must have developed to meet that need perfectly; home made substitutes can, as you say, be dangerous through their ineffectiveness. And even these substitutes can be used to abuse.

      Also, thank you for your kind word and support!

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