Author Archive

Director of Animal Care at Oakland Zoo “I was trained to use bullhooks on elephants” and why I’m advocating for a bullhook ban now

by | November 26th, 2014

This photo was NOT taken at Oakland Zoo. This is a photo from In Defense of Animals showing trainers using a bullhook on a young elephant.

There is great news for people against cruelty to animals! The City of Oakland has introduced an ordinance to protect elephants and BAN THE BULLHOOK. This is the tool that trainers in circuses, entertainment and still a few zoos use to control, punish and intimidate elephants. See video of trainers in CA training elephants for performance  (WARNING – this video is graphic). We have a rare opportunity to bring this horrible abuse to an end here in Oakland but we all must act. Oakland Council Members Gallo and Kalb have agreed to sponsor an ordinance to ban the bull hook in Oakland. A similar ordinance just past in Los Angeles which is the first big city to pass such a ban. The time is right for Oakland. Please take a few minutes of your time to contact the Oakland City Council members – and if you can – to attend the Oakland City Council meetings on December 2nd and December 9th.

I have been caring for elephants in the zoo setting for over 30 years, early in my career I was trained to use a bull hook. It is an instrument designed to cause elephants pain by jabbing and hooking them with the sharp ends and using the stick portion to hit them. I was taught to jab and hook the elephant with the sharp metal parts on the most sensitive parts of the body. If an elephant did not immediately obey it would be hit with the stick as punishment. We worked inside the enclosure with the elephants with no barrier between us and the elephants. If an elephant did not obey right away it was thought to be challenging the keeper’s dominance so it would be punished by repeatedly hitting it with the bull hook.


Colleen Kinzley (center) speaking at the (Oakland Zoo hosted) press conference to ban the bullhook in Oakland.

Colleen Kinzley (center) speaking at the (Oakland Zoo hosted) press conference to ban the bullhook in Oakland.


In January of 1991 one of my coworkers at the Oakland Zoo was killed by one of the elephants when he told the elephant to back up and instead the elephant knocked him to the ground and killed him. It was a terrible tragedy but because of the danger to keepers Oakland Zoo became the first zoo to use a new method called Protected Contact (PC) to care for the elephants. In Protected Contact the keepers interact with the elephants through a barrier. The keepers are safe so there is no reason to have such strict and aggressive control over the elephant’s behavior. In PC the keepers use only positive reinforcement training, never any physical discipline or dominance. The elephants can choose to participate or not, if they participate they get tasty treats, if not the keeper will try again later or ask them to do something else.


Very quickly after changing to PC we saw the tremendous benefits to the elephants; we could still care for them but they would never again be hit, jabbed or dominated. The elephants personalities really blossomed in the new system, they were able to behave like elephants, express their emotion, and do what they wanted to do.


For many years I have been advocating to end the use of the bull hook. As an expert witness in many cases of abuse related to bull hook use, I have watched many hours of undercover video some very recent. I know that still today the bull hook is a tool used to cause pain and suffering. Dominance and intimidation is the standard form of handling and training when the bull hook is used. All animals deserve our respect and to live without the daily abuse that occurs when the bull hook is used.

OAKLAND RESIDENTS (especially) and Bay Area residents need to show the strong community support for this ordinance. This elephant protection ordinance would hold circuses to the elephant husbandry standard set by the Oakland Zoo, which manages its elephants using cooperative, non-violent, positive-reinforcement-based methods. To see exactly how we train our elephants this way, watch this short video of our Lead Elephant Keeper, Gina Kinzley training one of our African Elephants. 

So please take the time to help BAN the BULL HOOK in OAKLAND! Every individual can make a difference, whether it’s coming to the hearings about this ban on December 2nd and 9th, or writing/calling City Council members to let them know you support this ban.

City Council Meetings: The first hearing on this ordinance is before the Public Safety Committee on December 2, 2014 at 6 p.m. in the Sgt. Mark Dunakin Room – 1st Floor of City Hall; 1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. Please join us to show strong community support for this important legislation. The second Meeting will be on Tuesday December 9th before the entire council in the Council Hall. Please join Oakland Zoo and come to these meetings if you can.

The Ordinance has two co-sponsors on the City Council.


We know that Ringling Bros. Circus is working hard to kill this legislation.


IF YOU LIVE IN OAKLAND please call your council member and ask them to support this ordinance. If you live in either of the two co-sponsors’ district please call them and thank them for introducing this Ordinance. Find your Council District:

IMPORTANT: If you live in Council Member Larry Reid’s District

PLEASE CALL HIM and ask him to support this ban:

(510) 238-7007; E-mail:

VERY IMPORTANT: If you DON’T LIVE IN OAKLAND please send your messages of SUPPORT to the council members ONLY BY EMAIL.


Send an email to (or if you’re an Oakland resident, you can telephone):

Noel Gallo – Email:; Phone:  (510) 238-7005

Larry Reid – E-mail:; Phone:  (510) 238-7007

Dan Kalb – Email:; Phone:  (510) 238-7001

Libby Schaaf – Email:; Phone:  (510) 238-7004

Pat Kernighan – Email; Phone:  (510) 238-7002

Desley A. Brooks – Email:; Phone: (510) 238-7006

Rebecca Kaplan – Email:; Phone: (510) 238-7008

Casey Farmer, Policy Analyst – Email:; Phone: (510)238-7003

Talking Points:

  • Please support the proposed ordinance to ban the bullhook and help to protect elephants.
  • This elephant protection ordinance would hold circuses to the elephant husbandry standard set by the Oakland Zoo, which manages its elephants using cooperative, non-violent, positive-reinforcement-based methods.
  • The Oakland Zoo, Oakland SPCA and world-renown elephant experts including the PAWS Sanctuary support this important ordinance.
  • Please follow Los Angeles’ lead and Ban the Bullhook. Los Angeles stood up to Ringling Bros Circus’ threats of pulling its business – it’s time that Oakland do the same.

A Dog and Three Kittens…at the Zoo?

by | September 12th, 2011

Lily Rae, photo caption Colleen Kinzley

You may have already heard that we now have an Oakland Zoo Dog,  Lily Rae, and Zoo Cats, Billy, Scarlet and Calli. Lily Rae began her formal exhibit hours (formal only because she is often accessible for many other hours of the day, but these are the hours that the keepers can be sure will fit into their schedules) .  She is “on exhibit” Mon., Wed., Thurs., and Sundays at 10-11am and 2-3pm.  Often, she is hanging out with one of her keepers in the Contact Yard in with the goats and sheep where kids can pet and visit with her.  She has progressed much faster than we expected and has been exceptional in these direct contact situations. I had a wonderful experience one day with a young girl, maybe eight years old, who absolutely fell in love with Lily. She pet her for a half an hour and did not want to leave. Her Aunt had to promise they would come back. She didn’t have a dog at home, but really wanted one. Her Aunt said it was in the works, so we talked all about how to care for the dog and the importance of puppy classes and training.

Lily with her trainer and Keeper Chelsea, Photo credit: Colleen Kinzley

Lily Rae  graduated puppy training with Chelsea Williams from Bravo!Pup Puppy One,  a five week course where she practiced sit, down, loose leash walking, and stay. She is now taking Puppy Two with Cathy Keyes, where  she faces greater distractions and durations on her stays, learns to ‘go to place’ and eye contact among other things. Cathy and Chelsea are the two keepers that take Lily home at night. Early training is so important to insure that your dog becomes a good family member, but training can happen at any time. To learn more about puppy and dog training classes visit

Lily Rae is a water baby and loves any opportunity to play in water, I’ve included a picture with her and the hose. She was a muddy mess shortly after this picture was taken.



Teen Wild Guides showing kittens to Zoo visitors

The kittens are also doing very well although they are proving to be a bit more challenging than Lily to train. They are much more interested in playing. The keepers are working on things like teaching the kittens to come when they are called and allow their nails to be trimmed.  Just like all of the animal training in the Zoo, it is done to care for the animals and only using positive reinforcement like food treats, praise, and petting.  We are working on the modifications to the Cat Cottage, so Zoo guests can come into the room to visit with the kittens. In the meantime, when the kittens have an attendant, they will hold the kittens up at a short fence for petting, which both the kids and the kittens are loving.

An Opportunity to Help Tigers Here in the US

by | August 26th, 2011

Photo courtesy of IFAW

Thousands of tigers are held privately across the US, more than what remain in the wild. They are often poorly cared for and irresponsibly bred. Tigers breed well in captivity, even under terrible conditions. Many of the cubs and the parents are destined to live out their lives in small, horrible facilities. These animals are sold as pets (yes many states allow this), perform in circuses, and are carted to malls and fairs. Often, the tiger cubs are used to make money through photo opportunities.

You can help stop this practice by urging the USDA to increase their regulations for protecting all captive tigers. Please take a couple minutes (I did it, it only took 2 minutes) to let the USDA know you support changes to protect all captive tigers.



Colleen Kinzley

Curator at Oakland Zoo


Find out more information on how to take action from Fred O’ Regan, IFAW President.

Click here to link to IFAW information.


Don’t Support the Circus

by | August 1st, 2011

You may have seen the ads that the Circus is in the Bay Area. For me it is a sad reminder that many elephants, tigers and other wild animals still suffer miserable lives in the circus.

For example the elephants spend most of their lives confined by short chains, and rarely, if ever, get to do normal elephant behaviors like grazing on grass or swimming. They are also forced by trainers to do unnatural and sometimes dangerous behaviors like standing on small tubs and turning in circles, or forming a chain of elephants; each elephant standing her front feet on the back of the other. The circus trainers use bullhooks, a stick with a sharp hook and point, to punish the elephants if they don’t do what the trainer wants them to do. For more information about the suffering of wild animals in entertainment visit the Animal Defenders International website at

Human circus performers perform by choice and are wonderful to watch. Be sure if you go to a circus it is one of the fabulous animal free= cruelty free circuses like the Pickle Circus and Cirque du Soleil.

Keep Your Eye to the Sky

by | April 17th, 2010

Barn Swallow, Photo credit Jason Loy

By Jason Loy, Animal Keeper at Oakland Zoo

Have you ever looked up in the sky, seen a flock of birds flying overhead and wondered where they were going? Perhaps they were headed south for the winter and to warmer climates, flying northward in the spring, preparing to find a mate, or merely looking for the day’s meal. Whatever the case may be, witnessing a flock of birds soaring by is always a sight to behold and there is no better day to celebrate this fact then on International Migratory Bird Day (IMBD).

Based around the second Saturday of May each year (this year it will take place on the 8th), IMBD is a celebration across the Americas of the nearly 350 migratory bird species that grace our skies and the conservation efforts that support them. Since its creation in 1993 by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, IMBD continues to grow with an estimated 500 reported events occurring in 2007 and hundreds of thousands of people participating nationwide. Organized currently by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Division of Migratory Bird Management, this day consists of all of the different activities and ways birds are observed and cherished. Everything from bird walks and counts, fairs and festivals put on by local organizations, photo contests, kids games, habitat restoration projects and cleanups, and live music and performances can be considered as a part of the celebration.

Black Phoebe, Photo credit Jason Loy

Each year has a different theme for IMBD and the theme for this year is “The Power of Partnerships”, which highlights the partnerships that allow bird conservation programs to be successful. For example, the Oakland Zoo partners with bird-friendly organizations like the American Bird Conservancy and the Ventana Wildlife Society, which do great work and research to make the lives of birds better.

The Oakland Zoo is also a great place to view different native and migrating birds. Not only does the zoo have quite a number of different species, there were also an estimated 47 different wild species seen within the zoo grounds and surrounding areas during last year’s Christmas Bird Count. With everything from hawks and turkeys to hummingbirds and warblers, the Oakland Zoo continues to be an excellent habitat for birds.

For more information and to find other events near you, head to online, or check out one of the other links below.