Animal Defenders International


Animal Defenders International

Movie Star Electric Shocked

Posted: 11 July 2011. Updated: 16 March 2013


Water for Elephants.... and electric shocks and bullhooks....

Water for Elephants is a romantic drama set in a 1930s animal circus in the USA, starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson. The biggest star of the film is 45-year-old Asian elephant Tai, who plays Rosie, provided by the performing animal supplier Have Trunk Will Travel, of California.

In the film the elephant is brutally attacked by the circus owner who beats her with a bull hook. But the producers, stars, and trainers were at pains to stress that Tai was trained with kindness, marshmallows, and positive reinforcement. This was not just big screen romanticizing of the circus – with the exception of those few cruel, bad apples – but a worldwide promotion of elephant training.

Gary Johnson, co-founder of Have Trunk Will Travel claimed: “Tai was never hit in any way at all.”

American Humane observed the animal action during filming and said: “We’re here observing prep on Water for Elephants and so we’re here to make sure that everybody knows that not only the action on set but also the prep is humanely done, all these animals have been treated fairly and humanely throughout the entire course of their training.”

As the film opened across the world ADI released undercover footage from inside Have Trunk Will Travel showing the elephants being repeatedly betean and electric shocked. Tai cried out as she was shocked with a stun stun gun to force her to do the very tricks that later would later appear in the film. The horrifying images shot around the world.

ADI puts the behind-the-scenes animal abuse in the spotlight

ADI’s shocking video filmed at Have Trunk Will Travel in 2005 shows:

  • Elephants including Tai are repeatedly given electric shocks with hand held stun guns.
  • Tai cries out when being shocked into performing a headstand.
  • Elephants including Tai are beaten about the body and legs with bull hooks.
  • A baby elephant is hooked in the lip and cries out.
  • An elephant is pinned with bull hooks while her tusks are sawn down, close to the bone.
  • Have Trunk Will Travel co-founder Kari Johnson viciously strikes an elephant.
  • A baby elephant being hit over the head and dragged by the trunk.
  • Elephants being hit and jabbed with bull hooks.
  • Elephants chained by the legs barely able to move (the elephants were chained from 6.30pm to 6.30am, 12 hours a day).

From the outset, ADI was uncomfortable with the message of this film, but the more we saw the repeated assertions that this elephant has been treated with love and affection and never been abused, we realized that we had to get the truth out. The public, the stars and the filmmakers have been duped. This poor elephant was trained to do the very tricks you see in the film by being given electric shocks.

This undercover footage was actually part of a wider investigation of animals in films and TV and was not due for release until the whole investigation concluded. Those familiar with ADI will know that our investigations can cover years, when the purpose of a study is to show the culture of an industry.

However, despite the risk to the rest of the investigation, we decided that the misleading claims about the treatment of Tai being spread around the world during the launch of Water for Elephants could not be allowed to go unchallenged.

Our footage shows handling and training for common tricks of Tai(45), Kitty(45), Dixie(46), Becky(26), Rosie(30) and Tess(30) with her baby, Tucker (now 6).

Kari Johnson,co-founder of Have Trunk Will Travel had previously stated: “Have Trunk Will Travel has never issued a written endorsement, nor does it condone using electrical devices to discipline and control elephants except in situations where elephant or human safety is at risk.” However, Gary Johnson and trainer Joanne Smith appear in the video giving the elephants electric shocks.

ADI sent copies of the DVD to the film’s stars and makers, but have yet to receive any statements or responses.

ADI has contacted the American Humane Association, urging them to re-evaluate their statements which effectively endorse the use of performing animals.

The suffering at Have Trunk Will Travel has been receiving universal condemnation around the world from vets, elephant experts, zoo industry insiders, and the public.

Dr Mel Richardson, captive wildlife vet: “As a veterinarian with 40 years of expertise caring for elephants and other captive wildlife, I can assure you these videos depict animal cruelty and unnecessary suffering. These people are tormenting their elephants. The aggressiveness and vengeance with which the handlers beat and punish the elephants is unconscionable. There appears to be no purpose other than to torment the elephants. As a veterinarian in 1982-84, I worked for an animal dealer who imported 44 baby African elephants to train for the performing animal industry. I have witnessed and treated the wounds of elephants traumatized by severe training techniques. And nothing rivals the cruelty I have witnessed over the last few days from the videos from Have Trunk Will Travel.”

Dr. Joyce Poole, world renown elephant biologist, Co-Director of Elephant Voices, lead author of The Elephant Charter, world-renowned elephant biologist, with 40 years studying elephants: "What we see is systematic abuse of fearful and terrorized elephants. The brutality and aggressive attitude demonstrated by the handlers leaves no doubt in my mind about the trauma that has been inflicted on these poor elephants. The roars of pain and squeaks of alarm heard in the footage all confirm the same - elephants forced with violence to do painful tricks that are unnatural and harmful to them."

Pat Derby former TV and movie animal trainer and founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, Ark2000 elephant sanctuary: “The actions I viewed on this video could only be characterized as needless suffering and unnecessary cruelty. In the early 70s, when I was working with animals on film sets I hated the way elephants were trained. Elephants bring out a fury in many men as no other creature does, a rage to dominate and to hurt.

“Although Have Trunk Will Travel states that their elephants are trained with food reward and positive reinforcement, no treats are visible anywhere in this video, and the bull hooks and electricity are used aggressively and angrily."

“The elephant actor in Water For Elephants, and the other elephants at Have Trunk Will Travel, have paid a high price for a few mediocre moments of entertainment. If you care about elephants, skip this movie.”

Peter Stroud, former curator of elephants at Melbourne Zoo, has said there was little doubt Tai has been subjected to cruel training methods at some point:

“Getting an elephant to do what it’s told really requires the elephant to be dominated. If you want to see an elephant behaving in the way this elephant probably does in this movie, where it’s in and around people and performing circus tricks, it’s a near certainty that it’s been trained using punishment, using pain, using very traditional methods that have been with us for a long time but are not at all elephant friendly. They’re basically cruel.”

Have Trunk Will Travel has not denied the treatment of the elephants, instead claiming “The video shows heavily edited and very short snippets”, and that they: “…stand by our care and training methods.” We responded by posting online full length clips (which had been available to the media from the outset), noting that viewers can see what happens before and after the incident while the elephants are still hit and electric shocked in between.

Hollywood must change its act

When Tai the elephant cried out as she was electric shocked, it was a long way from the glitzy premieres and movie theatres. Unfortunately, as animal circuses close around the world, performing animals are becoming an all-too casual inclusion in films and TV commercials.

Tai is already appearing online in the trailer for ‘Zookeeper’ with Kevin James, with the voices of Adam Sandler, Sylvester Stallone and Cher, which opens this summer. Previously she has appeared alongside Britney Spears, Ellen Degeneres, Jim Carey, Steve Carell and Morgan Freeman.

When these animals arrive on set, trained up and ready to perform on command, We believe the actors and the movie makers want to believe they are trained by love and kindness. They like to pet the animals, they see the trainers stroke them and smile, and when they are told its all treats and positive reinforcement, it is human nature to want to believe it. The reality as the footage showed, is very different. Like animal circuses, there is a huge gap between how the animals are trained out of the public eye and how they are presented in the ring.

Elephants from Have Trunk Will Travel, including Tai, appear in: Water For Elephants, Zookeeper, Evan Almighty, Vanity Fair, Larger Than Life, Jungle Book, George of the Jungle, Ace Ventura When Nature Calls, Operation Dumbo Drop, and the Britney Spears music video, “Circus”. TV commercials include Hewlett Packard, Visa, Oreo Cookies and American Express with Ellen Degeneres. In addition, English artist Banksy painted Tai for an art installation in Los Angeles.

Some of these animals have the kind of CVs that should give them real star power in Hollywood but they’re not living the good life. Over the years in training centers for movies and TV work, ADI has secured film of lions, chimpanzees and elephants being beaten and getting electric shocks. It’s time to stamp out the suffering.

Producers must ask themselves whether their film really needs the lifetime sacrifice paid by a living animal and whether they can genuinely assure audiences of humane treatment.

Remember, the actual training goes on in secret. Animal suffering is never romantic and it is never entertainment.

Our message is that if you care about animals, don’t go to see films where performing animals appear.

What You Can Do to Help Prevent the Suffering of Animals like Tai

  • If you live in the U.S. or Canada please email and ask for a Water for Elephants Letter Writing Pack; includes DVD and sample letters to actors, movie makers, newspapers.
  • Write a letter to your local paper about Tai’s abuse and educate the public that animal suffering is never entertainment.
  • Contact the Director, Producer and stars; politely ask that they make Water for Elephants the last film they will use live animal actors. (Contacts in our letter writing pack.)
  • Spread the word - link to the video on your Facebook and other social networking sites. Visit to watch the video and get the facts.
  • Boycott this film and tell your family and friends to take a stand to only support films without animal actors.
  • Leaflet moviegoers at a theater near you to educate them about the abuse of Tai and other performing animals. Contact ADI to order leaflets.
  • Contact your local theater with a copy of our DVD we can provide you, and politely ask them to make the right choice and stop showing the film.

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