Practical Issues > Entertainment > Circuses
More Video Evidence of Movie Elephant Suffering Released by ADI

The Sydney Morning Herald

Water for Elephants trainers in new cruelty video claims
Karl Quinn
May 14, 2011

Fresh video implicates owners in elephant cruelty, says rights group

Shocking new video footage clearly shows the owners of an elephant training company used by the Hollywood film Water For Elephants brutally beating their charges, the group behind the video's release claims.

UK-based Animal Defenders International claims the second round of footage it has released this week shows Have Trunk Will Travel owners Gary and Kari Johnson, plus several of their employees, repeatedly beating and prodding elephants with sharp-ended heavy sticks known as bullhooks.

ADI claims the footage refutes the Johnsons' assurances that they never use cruel training methods on their elephants.

Tai, the pachyderm star of Water for Elephants, is one of the animals shown being beaten in the footage, which was, like the earlier video, filmed at the company's California headquarters in 2005.

The first video showed elephants being beaten and suffering electric shocks, but did not feature either of the Johnsons.

In a statement issued after the first video was released, Have Trunk Will Travel said: ''Animal rights extremist groups are using Tai's role in Water for Elephants as a vehicle to take advantage of her celebrity to further their efforts to remove elephants and all exotic animals from entertainment. These groups have no basis of knowledge or experience working with elephants. They have an agenda and a history of using less than honest means to achieve their goals.''

The Johnsons did not, however, deny the footage showed the training methods ADI claimed it does, or that it was shot at their training facility.

''The video shows heavily edited and very short snippets, obviously taken surreptitiously six years ago," they said.

"None of the footage being shown was taken during Tai's training for Water for Elephants.''

That much is almost certainly true. All scenes involving animals on the shoot were monitored by the American Humane Association, which issues the industry-standard ''no animal was harmed'' certificate to complying productions.

In a promotional video on the association's website, safety rep Danielle Macdonald Wolcott explained their remit. ''We're here to make sure 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.''

Gary Johnson, speaking to German film site Spielfilm, expressed similar ambitions. ''Of course Tai was always safe and we always took care of her. Nobody would ever allow an animal to get hurt. Nobody will ever hurt our elephants.''

But the new footage appears to contradict that.

It appears to include scenes of both Gary and Kari Johnson wielding the stick in order to get their elephants to perform tricks. The Johnsons have repeatedly claimed Tai, whom they have owned since 1978, was trained using only love and treats, including marshmallows.

In one scene in the new video, a trainer turns towards the unidentified cameraman and says, ''don't you be taking pictures of me hooking on them''.

Other footage shows a baby elephant being poked and prodded while its clearly distressed mother is restrained by a second trainer with a bullhook. There is also footage of elephants chained up in a cramped concrete stable, where ADI claims they were regularly kept for 12 hours at a time.

The ADI website includes condemnation from a number of animal welfare experts, including Dr Joyce Poole, lead author of The Elephant Charter.

"What we see is systematic abuse of fearful and terrorised elephants," Dr Poole said of the video footage.

"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."

The Johnsons have been in the elephant training business for decades. In a recent interview on the blog of Ann Downer, author of Elephant Talk, Kari Johnson spoke of the couple's long history with elephants.

"My stepfather was an elephant trainer," Mrs Johnson said. "I started as his full-time apprentice when I was 14. So I've been living with and caring for elephants for 39 years.

"My husband, Gary, loved elephants from an early age, too. He actually owned his first elephant at age 16. That would not even be a possibility today with all the regulations and licenses required to own elephants."

The Johnsons are no strangers to campaigns against them, however. In 2006, concerns were raised after Tai was painted pink by the English artist Banksy for an exhibition in Los Angeles. In 2008, animal rights group PETA campaigned against them after they provided an animal for Britney Spears' Circus video clip.

The couple had "long histories of exploiting animals", PETA claimed, and had "gone so far as to defend the use of cruel electric prods on elephants", a claim the Johnsons refuted.

In 2009, the couple gave evidence in court when the Ringling Brothers circus was charged with cruelty towards its animals.

Asked about the use of the bullhook, Gary Johnson described it thus: "It's like a fly biting them or a horsefly, for instance, biting them. Does it hurt them? Probably not. Does it irritate them? Maybe. They try to get it off of them. So it's basically the same principle, I believe."

The lawyer then asked Mr Johnson: "If you could train a fly, then you wouldn't need a hook?"

"Exactly, sir," Mr Johnson replied.

The court found in favour of Ringling Brothers in that trial.

The irony of the current campaign is that the makers of Water for Elephants claim to have made a film that is, in part, a condemnation of the very behaviour it depicts.

The movie is a romance set against the world of the circus in the 1930s, when cruelty towards animals was common. American Humane insists all scenes of cruelty were simulated.

"He's never going to hit her, of course, we're not going to let him hit her," Kari Johnson said on the American Humane video of a scene in the movie in which Tai appears to be hit. "Our foremost concern is for the elephants."

Added Robert Pattinson, the Twilight star who plays the male lead opposite Reese Witherspoon: "The idea of abusing them is just so disgusting."

Regardless of how good its makers' intentions may have been, ADI has called for an international boycott of the film in protest against what it claims are the trainers' long-standing methods.

Read more:

Animal Defenders International
Millbank Tower
London SW1P 4QP, UK.
Tel. +44 (0)20 7630 3340
Fax. +44 (0)20 7828 2179


Wildlife vet describes training at elephant suppliers for Water for Elephants: 'Nothing rivals the cruelty I have witnessed over the last few days.'

Today Animal Defenders International (ADI) has released more shocking footage from Have Trunk Will Travel, where the elephant Tai used in the movies Water for Elephants, Zookeeper and Britney Spears' circus video, was trained.

The first footage ADI released earlier this week related specifically to what was shown in Water for Elephants. It showed how Tai was taught to perform tricks with electric shocks and bull hooks and not with love and marshmallows.

In response to the latest claims by Have Trunk Will Travel, ADI has released additional footage, which shows more of a view of the day to day control of the elephants; this is equally violent:

-- Have Trunk Will Travel boss Kari Johnson viciously striking 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 being chained from 6.30 pm to 6.30 am, 12hours a day)

See the new footage here: 

The Water for Elephants film-makers and its stars, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, had issued statements about the kindness with which Tai was trained however, ADI believes they were duped.

Jan Creamer, Chief Executive of Animal Defenders International said: 'We appreciate that the stars and makers of Water for Elephants were probably duped about the way the elephants were trained. But we think everyone will be reassured when they issue a forthright condemnation of the training methods and make a commitment not to use performing animals again.'

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

Dr. Mel Richardson, captive wildlife veterinarian: '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 renowned 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, Ark 2000 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 have 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.'

Today, ADI ask the public to judge for themselves.

Creamer adds: 'Full length clips of the footage were made available to the media as soon as we released them. Today we are posting these and the new clips online so that anyone can see it. You can see what happens before and after the elephants get hit or electric shocked, but they still get hit or electric shocked.'

'We released the video evidence because of very misleading claims being spread around the world during the launch of Water for Elephants; Claims that went well beyond what had occurred on set and even claimed kindness during the entirety of their training.'

Notes to Media:

Video footage for broadcast and photographs are available to download

-- Though ADI opposes circuses that utilize animal performers, it remains fully supportive of arts and entertainment and circuses that use only human performers.

-- This week, ADI released footage of Tai, the 45-year-old elephant actor featured in Water for Elephants, being electric shocked and hit with bull hooks during training. The tragic irony is Tai's character in the film, 'Rosie,' is a circus elephant who is violently abused, but Tai's fictional treatment on screen represents the real, routine violence that occurs to her and other animals being trained and forced to perform for circuses and other entertainment.

-- For more than 18 years, ADI has effectively produced overwhelming and undeniable evidence of suffering of animals in circuses as a result of extreme confinement, the constant traveling nature of these shows, and cruel training practices. ADI's two-year undercover investigation on circus cruelty shocked the world, resulting in major changes in the U.S., South America and European countries.

-- Courts in many countries have used ADI's evidence to prosecute offenders while governments have been compelled to change laws in favor of partial or complete bans, such as the recent passing of Bolivian law 4040, which prohibits any and all use of animals in Bolivian circuses.

About Animal Defenders International (ADI):

With offices in Los Angeles, London and Bogot�, Animal Defenders International (ADI) campaigns to protect animals in entertainment; replacement of animals in experiments; worldwide traffic in endangered species; vegetarianism; factory farming; pollution and conservation. ADI also rescues animals in distress worldwide. ADI-gathered evidence has led to campaigns and legislative action all over the world to protect them.

ADI's Mission: To educate, create awareness, and promote the interest of humanity in the cause of justice, and the suppression of all forms of cruelty to animals wherever possible to alleviate suffering, and to conserve and protect animals and the environment.>

# # #


Phil Buckley, Media Relations Director, Animal Defenders International:

Mob: 07716 018250

DirectLine: 0207 630 3344


Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin,