NEW: House Bill 1531 Seeks to Protect Elephants From Abuse, Ban Bullhooks in Virginia


For Immediate Release:
January 22, 2024

David Perle 202-483-7382

Richmond, Va. Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax) has just introduced House Bill 1531, which, if passed, will ban the use of bullhooks—heavy fireplace poker–like weapons with a sharp metal hook on one end that are used to “break,” beat, and terrorize elephants.

“I am moved by the plight of abused elephants like Asha, who are forced to perform under the threat of violence,” says Tran. “My bill bans the use of inhumane weapons, like bullhooks, on elephants. Elephants are intelligent, complex animals and should not be made to suffer from loneliness, pain, and fear.”

The use of bullhooks is against the law in Richmond, where the city council voted to ban the weapons in 2015, and prohibited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, the leading accrediting body for zoos and other such facilities in the U.S.

But elsewhere in the state, traveling exhibitors and roadside zoos—including the notorious Natural Bridge Zoo in Rockbridge County, at which state authorities recently executed a search and seizure warrant and seized nearly 100 animals—have continued to use bullhooks to force elephants to give rides and perform circus-style tricks under the threat of fear and pain. Handlers hit the animals or jab the sharp metal hooks into the tender, soft tissue behind elephants’ ears, inside their ears or mouths, on the back of their sensitive ankles, and in and around their anuses.

As elephant trainer turned whistleblower Sam Haddock explained, “The bullhook is designed for one purpose, and one purpose only, to inflict pain and punishment. I should know, I used to make them. I built them to where you can’t break them, no matter how hard you hit the elephant.” A PETA exposé uncovered a circus employee viciously attacking elephants with a bullhook, instructing trainers to sink and twist it into the animals’ flesh until they screamed in pain. Elephants—known for their impressive long-term memory—quickly learn to fear the bullhook and try desperately to anticipate commands to avoid its use.

Asha the elephant walking next to a worker with a weapon at Natural Bridge Zoo, at which the Virginia Office of the Attorney General ordered and executed a search warrant

In 2013, PETA documented that Asha’s handler carried a bullhook while walking closely next to her.

“Trainers use bullhooks to hurt, bully, torment, and terrorize elephants into performing tricks that make no sense to them and to force them to carry heavy loads of people on their backs,” says PETA Senior Vice President Daphna Nachminovitch. “PETA is thankful to Delegate Tran for standing up for abused elephants and working to make Virginia a kinder place for animals.”

Natural Bridge Zoo is infamous for its treatment of Asha, the last solitary African elephant in North America used for rides. Asha’s handler has consistently carried a bullhook as a reminder of the pain that will be inflicted if she doesn’t obey, and for years, visitors have seen her swaying and bobbing her head, recognized signs of loneliness, boredom, and stress. On Friday, Rockbridge General District Court Judge Gregory Mooney ruled that prosecutors had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that most of the animals seized from the roadside zoo had been subjected to cruelty and/or inadequate care.

PETA—whose motto reads, in part, that “animals are not ours to use for entertainment”—points out that Every Animal Is Someone and offers free Empathy Kits for people who need a lesson in kindness. For more information, please visit or follow the group on X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, or Instagram.


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