The Monterey Zoo is also allegedly the only facility in the state that uses “circus-style, free contact” training – which places trainers in the same space as their elephants and uses negative reinforcements, like using bullhooks, to control behavior.
That system can put handlers at risk. In June 2018, a Monterey zookeeper suffered a broken back and ankle after getting trampled by an animal.
“Even following this incident, defendants continue to use canes to control the remaining elephants,” the lawsuit alleges.
Other facilities place a barrier between the animals and the trainers, and reward good behavior with positive reinforcement instead.
California halted the use of bullhooks and similar items on captive elephants in 2018, court documents show.
They are devices “resembling a fireplace poker with a sharp hook on one end” used to intimidate or coerce elephants into following their trainer’s commands, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which filed the lawsuit Tuesday afternoon. The zoo is accused of using L-shaped canes that resemble the hooks enough to instill fear in the animals, instruments that are also subject to the state’s ban.
The zoo is among seven that house elephants in California – but the only one that uses bullhooks or similar substitutes, the lawsuit says. Some, including the Oakland Zoo, voluntarily ended their use of hooks decades ago.
“PETA is asking the court to stop this facility from breaking the law at elephants’ and workers’ expense,” said Rachel Mathews, an attorney for the group.
The lawsuit is also seeking an injunction that would block the zoo and its leader, Charlie Sammut, from possessing elephants and force the ones currently there to be transferred to a sanctuary.
Sammut and the zoo did not immediately respond to Fox News’ requests for comment.
State investigators visited the property after earlier allegations of neglect following the deaths of two elephants, both around 50 years old, at the zoo in 2019, the Californian reported — one of which was involved in the trampling incident.
The inspectors “exonerated us,” Sammut told the outlet.
There are now just two elephants left at Monterey, Butch and Buffy. Of those, only one is handled in the free contact system, according to Sammut.
“There are a lot of zoos accredited by all agencies that still practice free contact handling, like the Pittsburgh Zoo,” he said.
Sammut is a former law enforcement officer who got into the zoo business partly by chance and partly through a passion for wildlife according to the zoo’s website.
He adopted his first exotic animal while working as a police officer as a young man. During an arrest, the suspect told him about a pet cougar in his garage that “would now be in need of a new home.” So he took it in. Then he expanded to more animals and trained some of them for use in films and TV shows.
Now he operates the zoo and the Vision Quest Ranch, which includes an on-site “Safari Bed & Breakfast” that invites visitors to eat breakfast with the elephants.