A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Staying Away from ‘Water for Elephants’

One movie I certainly won’t be going to see this weekend is Water for Elephants, more aptly named “Torture for Elephants.”

And all credit to Animal Defenders International (ADI) for the videos they’ve released showing us what life is like for elephants being trained to perform stunts in movies.

For people who’ve already been to the movie, they’ll have seen in the credits that famous line from the American Humane Association (AHA) that says “No animals were harmed during the making of this movie.” I have no doubt that that’s actually true. I’ve known several of the inspectors from AHA and the way they monitor the treatment of animals on the set is quite meticulous. They’ve been doing it for years, and their concern is the welfare of the animals. So I’m sure that Tai, the elephant who stars in the movie, was treated well on the set for the movie to get AHA certification.

But what happens on the set is just the very end of the process. Tai is owned by a company called Have Trunk Will Travel, which trains elephants and other animals for all kinds of entertainment purposes. And 45-year-old Tai has spent much of her life with this company. They describe the six elephants who are held captive there as being their “family.”

But when you see the video from Animal Defenders International, you’ll only pray that you’re never part of that “family.”
You’d think that the watchdog would be the leader in protesting the kind of brutality that’s depicted in the graphic video from ADI.
The first video that ADI released has now been shown on TV news reports all across the country. It’s bad enough. But this weekend, ADI has released a second video of life for elephants at Have Trunk Will Travel. Frankly, when I first watched it, I couldn’t even get through the whole thing. Half way through I just had to turn it off. It’s stomach churning and simply horrible to watch a large, clearly sadistic woman holding a baby elephant by her trunk and whacking her over the head with a heavy bullhook. It’s shocking to see an elephant being hooked inside her tender ear and being dragged around with this sharp hook and beaten repeatedly on her legs, her head, her ears and her trunk.

And then there’s the electric shock device that delivers a million volts to an elephant’s tummy when she doesn’t stand up properly on her back legs and wave her front paws in the air to the satisfaction of these dreadful people. It’s just awful.

Here’s this second video. I need to warn you that it’s disturbing.

More video evidence of movie elephant suffering… from Animal Defenders on Vimeo.

So, that’s how elephants are trained to perform in movies in circuses. It’s nothing more than our modern version of the amphitheaters of Ancient Rome. And we thought we were more civilized. No, we just hide it better.

The Hollywood stars of this dreadful movie, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, were busy doing the rounds of the talk shows promoting the movie when the first torture video was released last week, and they were clearly caught off balance, trying to get their act together and explaining that they never saw how Tai was trained. That’s probably true. But if they’d done their homework, they’d have at least come across some red flags.

And American Humane is likewise repeating that it only monitors what happens on the movie set, not what goes on back at the facilities of places like Have Trunk Will Travel. I have respect for what the AHA does, but frankly, this is a lame excuse. Elephants like Tai are never trained while they’re on the set; that all happens years before they ever even get to the set. That’s the whole point. They don’t get to go anywhere near a movie set or circus ring until they’ve been so cowed into submission that they’re guaranteed to perform without the bullhooks and the million volts of electricity that all need to be carefully out of sight of the audience.

The uproar has now gone worldwide, including a move in Australia to ban the film altogether before it even opens there. That may not come to pass, but it’s good to know that people care about gratuitous cruelty like this.

Here’s another shocker: Have Trunk Will Travel is certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the supposed watchdog of the zoo business. And the California Association of Zoos and Aquariums is staunchly in favor of these so-called training techniques. Twelve years ago, when an animal welfare bill was being considered by the state, the California AZA wrote a letter lobbying for the continued use of electric shocks and bullhooks.

Meanwhile, the national AZA still allows elephants to be kept in chains and the use of the bullhook as an acceptable form of elephant management, and it supports Have Trunk Will Travel as a Certified Related Facility.

You’d think that the watchdog would be the leader in protesting the kind of brutality that’s depicted in the graphic video from ADI. But for the AZA to act as cheerleader for abusive trainers and cruel companies that are profiting off of the suffering of these gentle giants? That’s seriously unethical.

Finally, and to add insult to injury, there’s yet another movie with elephants from Have Trunk Will Travel coming out in a couple of months. It’s a so-called comedy called Zookeeper. Do the animals a favor and stay away from it.

And please invite your friends and family to stay away from Water for Elephants, as well. If they still want to go see it, ask them to at least watch the video before they go.

Just generally, if there’s one thing we can all do without, it’s entertainment that involves cruelty to animals. Whether it’s circuses, marine circuses, or other movies and shows that depend on torturing wildlife into doing stuff that’s entirely unnatural to them, we don’t need it.

Elephants are in enough trouble already in their native lands where their numbers are dwindling. If you want to feel good about something, don’t buy a movie ticket to a show like Water for Elephants. Send the money to a group like Animal Defenders International that’s helping to protect these intelligent, sensitive, wise and wonderful animals.