ATLANTA (CN) - A traveling circus challenged Fulton County's "elephant ordinance," which prohibits the use of "bull hooks" on elephants.
Bull hooks, also known as elephant goads, are long-handled sticks with a sharp point at the end and a hook curving off from the point. They are used to control and direct elephants by poking and hooking them in sensitive areas.
Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, claims the ordinance should not apply to events in Atlanta, because the city has not adopted it and does not have an agreement for animal control services with the county.
Feld Entertainment sued Fulton County, its Board of Commissioners and the county's top code enforcer Tony Phillips, in Fulton County Superior Court.
Most of metropolitan Atlanta is in Fulton County.
Fulton County adopted the "elephant ordinance" in June 2011, at the urging of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal advocates. The ordinance bans the use of bull hooks on elephants within unincorporated Fulton County.
"The legislation further expressly 'encourages the municipalities within Fulton County to adopt ordinances prohibiting the use of bullhooks on elephants, and the clerk to the Commission is directed to forward an executed copy of this resolution and code amendment to the mayor of each municipality located within Fulton County,'" according to the complaint.
The circus, which is scheduled to perform in Atlanta from Feb. 14-20, says the ban applies only to events in municipalities that have adopted similar rules or have signed an agreement with the county for animal control services.
It claims Atlanta is not one of them.
The complaint states: "On or about Feb. 6, 2012, plaintiff contacted the County's Animal Services Division ('Division') Director Murray Goldthraite providing details of the Feb. 14, 2012 arrival of its circus animals and FEI personnel contact information for animal and facility inspections. No indication was made by Mr. Goldthraite or any other division personnel that the county elephant ordinance would be applied during the plaintiff's city of Atlanta tour stop.
"On Feb. 10, 2012, the county informed the plaintiff of its intent to enforce section 34-212 within the city limits - despite the text of the legislation and the county's representations during the consideration of the legislation - during the circus's city of Atlanta tour stop. Defendants further threatened to subject the plaintiff to criminal penalties and possible impoundment of its elephants. ...
"Defendants sent the Feb. 10, 2012 correspondence to the plaintiff only after plaintiff became aware of the county's intentions to illegally enforce section 34-212 against UniverSOUL Circus ('UniverSOUL'). After becoming aware of the county's correspondence with UniverSOUL on Feb. 9, 2012, plaintiff demanded that the county provide formal correspondence indicating their intentions regarding the enforcement of section 34-212 against plaintiff. Upon information and belief, plaintiff believes the defendants intended to wait until the plaintiff arrived in the city of Atlanta on Feb. 14, 2012, to inform plaintiff of the county's intentions to enforce section 34-212 despite having ample notice of plaintiff's Atlanta tour stop dates."
The circus says the county's interpretation of the ordinance is inconsistent with its previous position.
It claims the county elephant ordinance "was adopted in response to pressure from advocacy groups and without adequate study or understanding of animal control methods mandated by federal and state law."
And it claims that the ordinance will harm its business and reputation and will make its performances unsafe.
"Absent the ability to utilize the proper elephant tools, plaintiff will not only be limited in its ability to assure the safety of the public and its employees during performances and transit of its elephants, but will also be deprived of its ability to properly move, feed, exercise, and otherwise care for the elephants when not performing in violation of federal and state law," the complaint states.
The circus says the county never responded to its objections.
It wants to stop the county from enforcing the ordinance.
Feld Entertainment is represented by Charles Palmer with Troutman Sanders.
In response to the lawsuit, PETA issued this statement: "The legislation banning bullhooks was passed because of a serious commitment by the citizens and commissioners of Fulton County to prohibit this sort of animal abuse in their community. The Municipal Code of Atlanta very clearly incorporates all of the Fulton County animal control ordinances - including the bullhook ban. PETA is concerned that the clearly worded prohibition and the wishes of Fulton County citizens have been disregarded without a proper legal basis. Bullhooks, as admitted by Ringling trainers and executives, are used to beat, jab, hook, and yank elephants in order to force them to obey. There are only two uses for a bullhook: to inflict pain and to instill a fear of pain. While a ban on the use of bullhooks is an important step in the right direction, it is now clear that anyone who cares about elephants and other captive exotic animals must make the compassionate decision never to attend a circus that uses animals."
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