TRAINING DAY: A device alternately called a bullhook or guide is also a controversial… (Samuel Haddock )
Sammy Haddock started working with elephants when he joined the circus at 20, in 1976, a young man's dream. He walked them, groomed them, cleaned up after them. More than once, he later confessed, he beat them.
Over time, his feelings about elephants grew more tender, especially toward the babies. In 1997 he was hired to work as a handler at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Center for Elephant Conservation, an ambitious program in Florida to breed and preserve endangered Asian elephants. Part of Haddock's job was to help train elephant calves to be circus performers.
He was deeply affected when 8-month-old Riccardo collapsed with leg injuries after tumbling off a tub during pre-training in 2004. Riccardo had to be euthanized. Haddock also began to see things from the point of view of his wife, Millie, an animal lover.
Nearly two years ago, Millie lay dying of complications from diabetes. Sammy had retired from the circus in 2005 to care for her. She asked him for a promise.
"My wife never liked what the elephants went through at the circus, especially the baby elephants, or that I was a part of it," Haddock said recently in a written declaration. "Before she died, she told me, 'Sammy, I know you'll do the right thing.' "
Now Haddock's dramatic interpretation of doing "the right thing" is being unleashed -- from the grave. He died early last month in Clermont, Fla., at 53, of liver failure. He left behind scores of pictures and a written recollection of his workplace. They offer a compelling glimpse into the treatment of baby circus elephants. It veers from the image propagated by the industry -- of little creatures contentedly acquiring nimble new moves in return for carrots and grapes.
Dead men do tell tales.
But what about pictures? Do pictures speak for themselves?
Last spring, Samuel Dewitt Haddock Jr. brought his story and his snapshots to Debbie Leahy, director of captive animals rescue and enforcement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. PETA and Ringling are old and bitter adversaries. PETA wants the animal acts shut down. Ringling has accused PETA of distorting its record of animal husbandry.
Haddock was a hard-bitten country boy, 5-foot-10 and lean, a real character. He was an unusual whistle-blower for PETA. He was a meat eater and a dove hunter. He didn't go undercover and secretly snap images on a spy camera. He was just a guy taking pictures at work.
In a 15-page notarized declaration, dated Aug. 28, before he took sick, Haddock describes how, in his experience at Ringling's conservation center, elephant calves were forcibly separated from their mothers. How up to four handlers at a time tugged hard on ropes to make babies lie down, sit up, stand on two legs, salute, do headstands. All the public's favorite tricks.
His photos show young elephants trussed in ropes as bullhooks are pressed to their skin. A bullhook is about the length of a riding crop. The business end is made of steel and has two tips, one hooked and one coming to a blunt nub.
An elephant trainer is rarely without a bullhook. The tool is also standard in many zoos, including the National Zoo. In recent years, for public consumption, elephant handlers have taken to calling them "guides."
Most of Haddock's pictures are at least seven years old. This summer, Leahy shot a video of Haddock in his living room, leafing through a photo album. He jabs one picture with a thick forefinger. He says it shows ropes used to pull a baby elephant off balance, while a bullhook is applied to its head, in order to train it to lie down on command.
"The baby elephant is slammed to the ground," Haddock says. "See its mouth is wide open? It's screaming bloody murder. It doesn't have its mouth open for a carrot."
Ringling officials confirm that the pictures are genuine images of activity at its elephant conservation center. But they dispute Haddock's and PETA's interpretations of what is taking place. For example, they say, the bullhooks are being used merely to give light touches or "cues," accompanied by verbal commands and tasty rewards; the babies' mouths are open not to scream but to receive a treat.
"These are classic pictures of professional elephant-training," said Gary Jacobson, director of elephant care and head trainer at the conservation center. ". . . This is the most humane way."
He is featured in numerous pictures, using his bullhook. He reviewed 70 of Haddock's images during a lengthy interview earlier this month at the 200-acre center in rural Polk City, Fla. He said he has many of the same photos in his own albums at home, courtesy of Haddock.
"The last thing they're afraid of is me, these little elephants," said Jacobson, a stout man of 59, with intense blue eyes and a silver mustache.