Videos show ‘Water for Elephants’ star abused during 2005 training

 
A video released by animal rights group Animal Defenders International (ADI) shows the elephant that appears alongside Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson in the new film Water for Elephants being beaten and given electric shocks during a 2005 training session.
 
Although the footage was shot well before the movie’s creation, the treatment it reveals is surprisingly at odds with the positive discourse surrounding Water for Elephants'  world premiere last week. The film’s cast and producers, as well as on-set watchdog group American Humane have been at pains to stress that 42-year-old performing elephant Tai is treated nothing like her on-screen character Rosie. In the movie, set in a 1930s US circus, Rosie is beaten by the cruel circus owner. In real life, they say, Tai is trained with nothing but kindness and positive reinforcement.
 

The 2005 clips were filmed at the California training ranch of performing animal supplier Have Trunk Will Travel. They show Tai and the company’s other elephants repeatedly hit, jabbed with bull-hooks and electro-shocked by their trainers.
 
In response to the video, the company issued a statement saying it “stands by [its] care and training methods”, and offering assurance that it will “continue to provide Tai and all of [the company's] elephants with the love and excellent care they deserve”. The statement also suggests that animal rights group ADI is trying to piggyback off the elephant's newfound Hollywood celebrity to generate its own publicity.
 
Nevertheless, on May 11 ADI released a second video showing further mistreatment of elephants at the hands of Have Trunk Will Travel. Several animal specialists commented on the footage. According to captive wildlife veterinary Mel Richardson, the videos clearly depict “animal cruelty and unnecessary suffering” of the elephants. As for Pat Derby, founder of the Performing Animal Welfare society, he offered a single piece of advice to potential viewers of Water for Elephants: “If you care about elephants, skip this movie”. 
 

Several calls and emails to Have Trunk Will Travel asking for further comment were left unanswered.
Contributors

"Tai was trained to do the very tricks you see in 'Water for Elephants' by being given electric shocks"

Phil Buckley is an activist from Animal Defenders International, the animal rights group which aired the footage of Tai and her companions allegedly being mistreated by their handlers in 2005.  
 
I’d like to draw attention to the statement released by Have Trunk Will Travel after we aired this video. First of all, they don’t deny the elephant featured in it is Tai, which clearly proves it is. Second of all, they don’t try to defend or justify the treatment seen in the video by saying that it isn’t painful to the elephants or that it’s just part of normal training methods.
 
Instead, their main defence consisted in attacking us as a group of extremist animal-lovers who want wild animals to be banned from the entertainment world altogether (which is absolutely right, by the way: we believe that animals like elephants or lions are not meant to be domesticated and taught “tricks” for the sole purpose of man’s entertainment). They also attacked the timing of the video: if it was shot in 2005, why wait six years to air it?
 
I can respond on that point: the clips weren’t aired immediately because they are part of an in-depth, exhaustive investigation we have been carrying out for years, to gather as much evidence as we can and to build a strong case proving our main argument: that wild animals simply cannot be trained into performing unnatural tricks using only “positive enforcement” methods. When the film Water for Elephants came out, the production crew and cast kept saying – no doubt in good faith – that the animals were treated only with love and gentleness and ‘fed marshmellows’ on set. At that point, we felt that we couldn’t just sit back and say nothing when we had proof that Tai’s docile behaviour had been moulded by years of heavy-handed training. She was trained to do the very tricks you see in Water for Elephants by being given electric shocks [at 0'30 minutes, the video shows Tai cry out when being shocked into performing a headstand].  
 
“Wild animals simply cannot be trained into performing unnatural tricks using only ‘positive enforcement’ methods”
 
The fact is that absolutely no-one - not the film producers, not the cast, not even the training company itself – has come out to defend the footage divulged in our video, simply because it is indefensible.  In fact, many animal trainers here in the UK have come out to condemn these methods and stress that they do not use them in any way.  [FRANCE 24 talked to a spokesperson for the Gruss circus in France, which works with many animals. He condemned the treatment seen in the video and explained that Gruss circus trainers work patiently to teach their animals to respond to verbal cues. Nevertheless, when asked what happens if a recalcitrant elephant refuses to learn a trick, he balked at answering and ultimately refused to be quoted].
 
We are not saying that all the treatment you see in the video is illegal: unfortunately, brutal control methods are used on performing animals around the world. Nor are we saying that Tai was mistreated on the set of Water for Elephants. Her training was closely monitored throughout the entire production by the American Humane Association, and they reported only fair and humane treatment. Nevertheless, we believe American Humane should tighten its procedures and monitor the past training of Hollywood animals as well as their treatment on set. Not doing so is nothing short of hypocritical.”

US trailer of the movie 'Water for Elephants'


Post written with France 24 journalist Lorena Galliot.

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