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Debate erupts over elephant training as circus comes to town

He stands on a grassy slope, right arm extended upward with an alfalfa treat, addressing his 4-ton companion in the tones of a tender friend.

"You're a sweetie, aren't you? You're special," Mike McClure says. And Dolly plucks the treat from his hand, curls it into her mouth and emits a guttural rumble.

That's the sound of a pachyderm purring, says McClure, the director of animal programs at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and an internationally known handler of elephants. Dolly, 36, is an African elephant.

It's a remarkable degree of mutual trust — and one that the trainer is sure he'd never have developed were it not for a grim-looking tool some call an instrument of torture.

The so-called bullhook, a 2-foot goad with a pointed end that elephant handlers have used for centuries to train and guide the huge creatures, has been the subject of a national debate that has had Baltimore talking since the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus rolled into town this week.

Elephant trainers around the world still use the tools, now commonly called guides. Animal-rights activists have complained for years that the devices are barbaric.

It's a debate that has pitted Jada Pinkett Smith, a Baltimore-born actress and spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake. In a sharply worded statement this month, Pinkett Smith noted that, unlike people in her profession, elephants do not choose to perform. Rawlings-Blake brushed off the concerns and sided with Ringling Bros., which calls its practices humane.

The company's annual run at 1st Mariner Arena ends April 1.

"The process of training is a complex equation, one with many components. The guide is one tool in that equation," says McClure, a certified board member of the Elephant Managers Association, an international nonprofit devoted to the species' conservation and welfare. "Our detractors don't have the experience or insight to know what makes the tool important."

On Monday, even as the circus was loading six of the animals onto a specially outfitted train for Baltimore, McClure said the best way to understand his meaning is to take neither side at face value but to observe the tools in use.

At the zoo

The zoo looks different behind the scenes — all locked gates, tall fences and trailers — and when an official finally grants entrance through the proper checkpoint, McClure, slender and sun-reddened at 41, appears to greet a visitor.

He marches down a slope to the edge of the elephant enclosure, where Anna, an 8,000-pound 37-year-old — one of the zoo's five elephants — looms just across a safety barrier, gazing down through fluffy lashes.

"She has already checked you out thoroughly," he says, adding that elephants, the most intelligent creatures on four legs, can detect smells and sounds from a dozen miles away. "She approves."

He has a thought. "Anna, trunk," he says in a placid tone. She raises the appendage, allowing McClure to probe inside her mouth, where he recently cleaned out a socket after she lost a tooth.

"If we didn't train these elephants, we'd never be able to reach places like this and offer them the grooming and medical help they need," he says.

McClure got his start in the business working construction at a small South Carolina zoo. In the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, he proved adept at wrangling escaped animals, including a 6-foot female alligator that had eluded his superiors.

He arrived in Maryland in 1995, worked with chimps, tigers, polar bears, hippos and giraffes, and took over the elephant program in 2002. He has been running it since that time.

Today he's offering commentary as two underlings — Katie Ernest, a two-year veteran, and Jon Murray, a newbie — put Anna through a few paces. For half an hour, they display an axiom basic to the field: He who uses the guide least uses it best.

Herd animals, McClure explains, have a strong instinct: When touched by a blunt object, they lean toward that object. When touched by a sharp one, they lean away.

As trainers set to work with a given elephant, they offer taps in the desired direction. They support that contact with verbal affirmation — "Good, Anna" — and follow up with edible treats. The animals soon consolidate the cues, and in time, a trainer can stand at a distance, merely gesturing with the tools to elicit a movement.

Ernest demonstrates.

"Pad," she says, offering a gentle tap. The elephant proffers a hoof, allowing Ernest to check the underside for debris or to trim as needed. "Head down," she says later. Anna bows, granting access to her ears, the site of routine blood draws for health monitoring. They're the kinds of services elephants lack in the wild, where health problems go unchecked.

Ernest steps in front of Anna, raising the bullhook. The animal rears up, a tower on two legs. The posture is good for an elephant's stomach muscles, McClure says, and gets things moving in the event of finicky digestion.

The trainers have hardly touched the animal, a sign that they and Anna are training each other. Their boss seems satisfied. "Let's have some lunch," McClure says, and the elephant lopes off for some hay.

Emotional debate

McClure loves the circus, particularly Ringling Bros., and sees it often when it comes to town. The company's trainers, veterinarians and veterinary techs are among the world's best, he says, adding that the company's $5 million Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida, which has produced 23 live births since 1995, is a boon to the endangered Asian species.

Besides, he's a fan of animal acts.

"Last time, a dog worked with one of the elephants, riding on its head," he says. "I know enough to know how much trust and training go into that — for both animals."

He was too busy, though, to be on hand Monday night when the circus train arrived in West Baltimore, where the elephants emerged and began their ritual march up Pratt Street.

As a crowd gathered, some trumpeting could be heard from within the railcars. A dozen or so handlers, half of them bearing guides, assembled at the doors. The elephants emerged to cheers, and the handlers offered a few taps to the backs of the feet, where the animals' skin is relatively thick.

They lined up, trunk to tail. "It's just like in 'Dumbo'!" someone squealed, and the tight-knit social group started a brisk, even stride toward 1st Mariner Arena about 10 blocks away.

For Janice Aria, it's an event not to be missed. The company's director of animal stewardship, she oversees the lives and training of 45 elephants at the 200-acre Florida center.

She has been in the business for 40 years — enough time to impress McClure as one of the best trainers and conservationists in the business.

Her voice is emotional as she catalogs complaints, demonstrations and legal actions on the part of PETA over the years — angry because she calls most of the accusations sensationalized, even untrue, and sad because the accusations affect public opinion.

Smith's request that Rawlings-Blake ban the use of bullhooks drew media attention. The actress, in a letter, reminded the mayor of a city law against any "mechanical, electrical, or manual device that is likely to cause physical injury or suffering" to a performing animal.

Delcianna Winders, director of captive animal law enforcement for the PETA Foundation, says the devices are "designed and used to inflict pain and instill fear." One Ringling employee, she adds, has reported seeing many "bullhook boils" on elephants' ears from abuse of the devices.

"That kind of [accusation] makes my blood boil. In all my years, I've never seen anything like that," says Aria, who also denies that the devices cause pain.

"What hurts you or me barely affects" animals so large they can knock down trees, she says.

Aria has spent years formalizing knowledge about elephant training that was once informal lore, merging it with modern studies of anatomy, physiology and husbandry that Ringling Bros. now includes in mandatory training and in an internship program it offers in Florida.

Handlers, for example, may only contact elephants at points where the skin is thickest (behind the feet, in the middle of the back, under the chin), and guides, once heavier and not always rust-free, are lighter now and made of stainless steel.

"Most of our people — and Mike [McClure] is like this — would literally rather die than harm these creatures," she says.

Animal lovers

What are the Ringling elephants thinking as they make their way in silence up busy Pratt Street? Hard to tell, though professionals believe such elephants — chosen for their relative gregariousness and love of adventure — enjoy the bond they share with their fellow travelers.

Back at the zoo, McClure says it's easy for detractors to come up with photos or take videos that, seen in isolation, give a bad impression. An elephant guide, he admits, has a foreboding appearance.

"I use the analogy of a scalpel," McClure says. "Leave it on a table somewhere, and someone can pick it up and do a lot of harm. In the right hands, it's a healing tool. Ban the scalpel, and you ban surgery."

He's loath to criticize animal-rights activists directly, though he does wonder whether some get the big picture. Enterprises like the zoo and Ringling Bros., he says, promote education and conservation, not to mention births in captivity. Genuine outrages are happening in places like Cameroon, where well-armed poachers have butchered as many as 400 elephants since January.

"These animals can communicate across 12 miles. What are the nearby herds hearing? I don't want to know," says McClure.

Animal lovers, he adds, can make a difference by contributing to the World Wildlife Fund or the International Fund for Animal Welfare, both of which are working to stop the slaughter.

Standing nearby, Dolly extends her trunk, searching for more treats. He hands over a few. "I've used the guide on her more than anyone has. Don't listen to me. She's telling you the story. Does she look scared of me?"

In the elephant world, he says again, it's all about context.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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