The Ankus is an extremely ancient tool used for the 'hands on' management, control and handling of captive elephants. It has been used in India for over two thousand five hundred years and continues to be used in every country where man works 'hands on' with elephants.
Today the Elephant Ankus is normally some 18" to 2' in length. Most of this will be a wooden or fibreglass shaft topped off with a point and a hook. If such a tool had never ever been invented for captive elephant management and someone set about designing it today it would be more or less the same size and shape.
Contrary to the belief of the anti-captivity, anti-zoo brigade the Ankus is not a cruel instrument of torture used to beat, poke, stab or torture elephants. It is simply a tool to aid management and assist in the control of a very large animal. The Ankus is just as capable of caressing an elephant as it is in guiding the animal.
There is absolutely no question that the Ankus in the wrong hands and used incorrectly could be used for harm. So too could a knife in the kitcken, a glass in the pub, a fork at the Bar-B-Q.
A well trained and cared for elephant has no fear of the Ankus because in the right hands it is not an instrument of subjugation and discipline. Professional caring elephant keepers will reprimand by voice more often than anything else. In the same way they would give reward and praise also.
The Ankus may also be referred to as an Ankush, Elephant Goad or Elephant Hook. In the main those people who are against elephants in captivity or 'hands on' elephant work are the most likely to refer to the 'Ankus' as a 'BullHook'.
The Born Free Organisation call the Ankus a Bullhook and state:
"Both ends of the bullhook are used to inflict damage. The hook is used to apply varying degrees of pressure to sensitive spots on an elephant's body, causing the elephant to move away from the source of discomfort. When the hooked end is held, the handle can be used as a club, inducing substantial pain when the elephant is struck in areas where little tissue separates skin and bone."
The rest of their dissertation on the Ankus makes equally distressing reading. I have little doubt that it could be used and has been used in such a way in the same way as the glass in the pub but this is not what correct Ankus use is about.
The Hook and the Point
The Hook and the Point of the Ankus are usually made out of copper, brass, iron or steel. The more ornamental Ankus may be silver or gold and even encrusted in jewels. Some are beautiful works of art.
The point on the end of the Ankus and the point on the hook are just that...pointed... though not especially sharp. The elephant keeper should be more than happy to demonstrate this by balancing the Ankus point end onto the palm of his/her palm and hang the hook end from their chin. The reason for the pointedness is so that only the slightest bit of pressure is needed to ask an elephant to come down, move over or lift its foot. Over most, but not all, of an elephants body the skin is quite thick. An extremely blunt hook would necessitate more pressure and that is not really what is needed. This is NOT about causing pain, hurt or distress. It is about working with and training a great big animal safely and with care. Elephants are not stupid, they learn quickly. Often the Ankus on a trained elephant is more symbolic than anything else. Elephant keepers are more likely to use the hook to remove a piece of hay from their animals back or to scratch an itchy spot.
Well trained and managed elephants have no fear of the Ankus at all. The Ankus in the proper hands is not a weapon or torture instrument it is not even a tool of negative reinforcement. It is a perfectly designed and strengthened extension of the arm for use in close contact with a large and powerful animal.
It is many years since I last worked with elephants but if it were not for the Ankus I would probably not be here today. Elephants are playful creatures and have a wicked sense of humour. They do not always appreciate that humans are soft and squishy. Using an Ankus as a 'prop' between an elephant and a wall stops you getting squashed....and yes I know one of the first rules of elephant keeping is to never get between an elephant and a wall but these things happen as any elephant keeper, good or bad will tell you. Besides I loved my elephants.
Bad Apples and Elephants
In every profession there are some bad apples. There are bad carpenters who blame their tools. There are rip off taxi drivers, poor teachers and hopeless cooks. There are good zoos and there are dysfunctional zoos. There are good elephant keepers and there are bad ones too.
It is the bad, unknowledgeable, old fashioned and impatient elephant keepers who are getting the profession and the Ankus a bad name. Elephants can be trained kindly through positive reinforcement as is demonstrated in the collections which now operate a 'hands off' protected contact style of management. Whilst 'hands on' free contact remains the method of choice for some collections then I believe that the Ankus is not just important but that it is necessary, it is part of Elephant Care. The Ankus can be and is still used by some alongside positive reinforcement in 'hands off' protected contact husbandry and care. Hands off has not stopped its use.
I will not defend the abuse of elephants or the staff who carry it out. These people need to be identified and retrained or drummed out of the profession. There is no excuse for the sort of behaviour as was seen with Anne The Elephant.
Persian Elephant Ankus
Indo Persian Ankus
All Steel Goad
How The Ankus Should Not Be Used
The video below is a collection of clips brought together to show how an Ankus should NOT be used. I am including it here because it needs to be shown. It is cruel, unkind and abusive. If you find the video disturbing then be assured that I do too.
People who resort to such abuse should not be working with animals at all. Organisations which accept such bad management need restructuring and moving over to 'hands off' protected contact. Elephants do not need or require such abuse. The Ankus does not need the stigma planted upon it by the irresponsible person holding it.
Stopping Ankus Use
It is the easiest thing in the world to ban the use of the Ankus. It is simply a case of somebody who has the power to pass the legislation but does not have a clue about Elephants or Elephant Training and Management.
You can stop Ankus use if you have especially built Elephant accommodation which has been built for protected contact management. Even then it will take time for the Elephants to understand, some more than others. To be honest maintaining the Ankus for some of the work would even then still be ideal.
You cannot realistically put an overnight ban on the use of the Ankus in the circus. You cannot put a ban on the use of the Ankus with Indian working elephants. And yet some courts in some Indian and US States have done just that. They really have not got a clue. Elephants are intelligent yes....but how are they going to understand that something they have been used to for ten, twenty, thirty, forty or more years is no longer being used?
It is likely that the more unmanageable of these elephants are now going to be chained up for the rest of their lives. They won't be able to go anywhere except perhaps moved to another state never to return.
Once again....I am not defending abuse of elephants with the Ankus. Protestors need to take a reality check.
If the elephant handler is walking an elephant along a road or through a field and they have not got an Ankus with them, then what have they got? I have walked alone with elephants, along roads, through fields, into woods, swimming in the river. In company I have walked others swimming in the sea. I am so very glad I had an Ankus with me.
So these handlers...what have they got? Elephants are strong powerful animals that can unintentionally cause great harm.
The Ankus In Hindu Culture
Ganesh is often seen to be holding various symbolic items. One of these is the Ankus. Here the Ankus is used to "steer the soul away from the ignorance and illusions of this earthly world just as a mahout would steer an elephant away from any treacherous path". That is what it is about. Caring, not abuse.
Similar in appearance to the Ankus in depictions is the Axe. The Axe signifies "to cut off all bonds of attachment" and so is not the same.
Lord Ganesh holding an Ankus
It Is Not The Tool But How You Use It
It is not the tool but how you use it. There is too much condemnation by the ill informed about management practices within zoos. Zoos and Circuses are not the same. There are similarities in the same way that there is to having tea at Claridges or a meal at the local chippie. There are good zoos and bad zoos and far too many Zoo Misconceptions.
The Ankus is an Ankus. It is how that it is used that matters.