A few years ago the animal advocacy group I volunteer for was organizing pickets of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, which comes annually to Everett Washington. They don't come to Seattle anymore. Some people attribute this to protests, although the circus claims that its only because the Event Center in Everett is a more economical venue. I was very conflicted when I first heard about the protests. I remember my father taking me to the circus as a kid and being totally captivated by the magic of the big show. (I've always had a weakness for spectacle). But I know that Ringling Brothers has a long history of being cited for problems with its animal handling, and that the very issue of keeping elephants in captivity -- much less training them to do circus acts -- is problematic.
I decided that I wanted to investigate for myself.
The first person I talked to was the PR director for our organization. She once worked for PETA and was now involved in coordinating the circus protests. She gave me a lot of background information on Ringling Brothers, including an undercover video taken of training in the circus (which I've never been able to watch more than a couple of minutes of). But I was still conflicted -- there was still a little kid in me who didn't want to give up the dream of the circus (and who loves having the chance to see elephants in person, whether it be in circuses or zoos). So I contacted the local PR people for Ringling Brothers and managed to wrangle a press pass to talk to people inside the show. I went up on the first night that they were open, and was treated very well. Ringling Brothers goes to great lengths to make local press feel comfortable. (A large part of the press section of their website is devoted to issues about animal welfare, litigation and stressing their role in elephant conservation). I was given a trainer to show me around, take me backstage and see the elephants waiting for the show. They seemed to be at ease even with all the excitement around them. The trainer talked about her love for the animals -- which seemed genuine -- and how she had given up a previous career to train for this one -- "run away and join the circus" she joked. She reminded me P.T. Barnum (known as a reliable source) said the two pillars on which the circus rests are clowns and elephants, and that following that mandate the company had established the world famous Clown College as well as a Center for Elephant Conservation -- a 200 acre facility in Florida devoted to "conservation, breeding and understanding". (You can see Ringling Brothers' description of the facility here.) She told me that she had never seen animals mistreated, and that his particular unit of the circus, which she had been with for a long time, had never had an animal death since she had been working there. It was a very impressive presentation.
And it was mostly untrue.
It turns out that this very same unit had a big cat die on their previous stop, under what the papers described as "suspicious" circumstances. And that this unit, and Ringling Brothers as a whole, had an unusually high rate of animal attrition as well as a checkered record with Federal inspectors. They were also involved in court cases and litigation, which they usually managed to keep tied up in the court for many years.
So much for the magic of the Circus.
Water For Elephants. I love the book -- which deals openly with the subject of animal abuse -- and was excited about the idea of it being a movie. But I was also disturbed. As a rule, I'm really uncomfortable with the use of exotic wild animals in entertainment. It promotes their being kept in captivity and creates a whole constellation of problems. A few years ago I refused to see the movie Speed Racer (which the Geek in me really wanted to see) because of reports from the Humane Society that the chimpanzee used in the film had been struck and beaten on the set. Using Great Apes in entertainment is a practice that I oppose, so even the directors' choice to use a real chimpanzee was upsetting.
What I hoped, when I first heard about Water for Elephants, was that they would do something really innovative, like creating CGI elephants (and other animals) instead of using real ones. With today's technology it could be done convincingly and could be used to add to the dark and romantic atmosphere of the story. That's not what they decided to do.
Once again, I was prepared to put my misgivings aside. I have a great respect for Sara Gruen and I know that she is passionately devoted to animals and their welfare. (There's a wonderful picture of her on her website playing with Thai, the elephant "star" of the movie.) When the movie came out I looked up the reviews from the American Humane Society, which monitors the use of animals in films and television. They gave the film a rating of "Outstanding" and certified it as "No animals were harmed". So I told myself I should just stop worrying and enjoy the movie.
Now, reports are surfacing about the company that trained Thai, the elephant in the movie. KTLA in Los Angeles -- as well as other sources around the country -- are reporting on undercover video released by Animal Defenders International. (You can see the KTLA report here.) The organization which trained Thai is called "Have Trunk Will Travel", and according to its website it is a privately funded organization that uses the proceeds from giving elephant shows, rides and providing elephants for movies to "care for elephants and provide for their future". The video shows elephants -- including baby elephants and including Thai -- being hit with a "bull hook", a long, sharp pointed "tool" which is used on elephants (and which, ironically, is shown disapprovingly in Gruen's book) as well as with electrical shocks.
The bottom line is that there simply is no way for these animals to be kept, humanely, in captivity. And there is no way they learned such unnatural behaviors as standing on their heads without questionable training techniques. The public needs to know this. We need to know when we support these activities, when we go see movies that use exotic wild animal like elephants or Great Apes, we are supporting a tradition that is rooted in cruelty and suffering.
The Humane Society does a great job of monitoring the treatment of animals on movie sets. But perhaps it needs to go much further. Perhaps they need to monitor and certify trainers, and refuse to give their designation to movies that don't used certified trainers. Perhaps, they need to simply accept that some animals cannot be humanely used for entertainment, and that giving a "No Animals Were Harmed" designation to any film which uses these animals is unacceptable. With today's technology, it is doubly unnecessary.
I, for one, will not go see movies, or live performances, with elephants or Great Apes in them again. No matter how much I want to believe in the "magic", the reality is too sad.
If you are interested in learning more about the horrendous history of exotic animals in entertainment, a good book to star with is Visions of Caliban, by Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall. This book is about chimpanzees, not elephants, but the sections on the use of apes in movies is must reading. It reveals the heartbreaking fate of many animals, including the orangutan who "starred" with Clint Eastwood in Every Which Way But Loose. Animal lovers should definitely read it.