[UPDATED with Lawsuit:] Santa Ana Zoo Urged to Cut Ties with Elephant Ride Contractor in Wake of Abuse Alleged in Video
UPDATE, JUNE 27, 10:40 A.M.: A Los Angeles-based animal rights group today announced the filing of a lawsuit against the contractor who runs the elephant rides at the Santa Ana Zoo.
However, the suit does not concern the ride operations that have been blasted by advocates for animals but Perris-based contractor Have Trunk Will Travel's training of an elephant named Tai, who played Rosie in the film Water for Elephants.
Animal Defenders International (ADI) and members of the public Gail Profant and Leslie Hemstreet are the plaintiffs in the suit filed in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, in Los Angeles against Have Trunk Will Travel, owners Gary and Kari Johnson and elephant trainer Joanne Smith.
The defendants are alleged to have given assurances that Tai was trained with kindness for her role in the film, but that ADI later released video (shown with the original post after the break below) that features the 42-year-old Asian elephant and other Water for Elephants elephants being electric shocked with a stun gun and jabbed and hit will bull hooks during their training in 2005 at the Perris ranch.
"We believe the public were duped when claims were made all over the world about the humane treatment during training of the elephant Tai that appeared in the film Water for Elephants," ADI president Jan Creamer says in the announcement of the legal action. "From the statements made by Have Trunk Will Travel in the build up to this film, we believe that they perpetrated a fraud.
"What is unclear at this stage is whether the film makers and actors were a party to that fraud or were duped themselves. We are still waiting to hear from them."
Water for Elephants, based on Sara Gruen's New York Times bestselling historical novel of the same name, was directed by Francis Lawrence and starred the Twilight trilogy's Robert Pattinson and Oscar-winners Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz. It opened in April to mixed reviews and disappointing box office receipts, although it went on to collect more than $113 million in worldwide grosses date--and it's yet to collect more in video release.
Animal groups, including ADI, are mounting campaigns to stop the film's release on video. While the director and stars have not commented on the controversy, the producers claim to have received the American Humane Society stamp of approval to use the "no animals were harmed in the making of this film" tag. The studio that distributed the picture was prodded into issuing this statement:
Twentieth Century Fox feels strongly that we have taken every step to ensure that the film, while portraying the perception of animal abuse (often through digital effects), held in utmost importance the proper care and humane treatment of all animals involved in the production.
Fox and the filmmakers behind Water for Elephants are disturbed and saddened by the video being circulated that purportedly shows the elephant Tai being mistreated several years ago. We are strongly opposed to violence against animals, humans or any creatures.
Fox is compelled to point out that this video was not taken during the training for, or production of, our film, and neither Tai nor any other animal performer in the film was harmed in any way during the making of this film.
While Have Elephant Will Travel has not yet responded to the suit, co-founder Gary Johnson has repeatedly denied animals were abused while making Water for Elephants. For instance, he has reportedly said previously, "Tai was never hit in any way at all. We had really mixed emotions about even doing this film because it's pretty graphic with the elephant, and there's some so-called beating scenes in there. We didn't want to send a wrong message." Partner Karl added Have Elephant Will Travel has never condoned the use of electrical devices to train elephants.
But ADI is pressing on, ending its statement with a plea to those who have ridden or watched live or on screen elephants supplied by Have Trunk Will Travel to contact their LA office at 323.935.2234. It wouldn't take a nose for elephant poop to deduce someone's trying to build a class-action lawsuit.
ORIGINAL POST, MAY 9, 5:33 P.M.: An animal rights group is urging the city of Santa Ana to break ties with the supplier of elephants for a Santa Ana Zoo ride after allegations the same company abused a mammal that appears in the recent film Water for Elephants starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) made the demand after video posted online by Animal Defenders International (ADI) was said to show Tai, a 42-year-old Asian elephant, being shocked with a taser and beaten with bull hooks in 2005.
My colleague Dennis Romero posted the following video earlier today on LA Weekly's The Informer news blog:
Movie star electric shocked
In the story, Tai is abused with bull hooks by an evil circus owner. But the stars, producers and trainers on Water for Elephants claimed in real life "Tai was trained with kindness, marshmallows, and positive reinforcement," an ADI statement notes.
"Tai was never hit in any way at all," Gary Johnson of Have Trunk Will Travel, the Perris company that provided Tai to the moviemakers and has other elephants in use at Santa Ana Zoo, is also quoted as saying in the film production notes.
Jan Creamer of ADI says his group felt duty-bound to show what Tai has really gone through, believing Witherspoon and Pattinson "will be horrified to learn" of the past abuse.
Romero's post includes this from PETA:
PETA, Animal Protection and Rescue League (APRL) and Orange County People for Animals (OCPA) has sent an urgent letter to Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido and other Santa Ana officials calling on them to end the rides once and for all.
Tracy Reiman, PETA's executive vice president, is also quoted:
Video footage reveals that Have Trunk Will Travel beats elephants with what is essentially a fireplace poker, clearly showing that 'training' to the company means beating and shocking these gentle elephants until they scream. Mayor Pulido needs to stop supporting such wanton abuse and stop the pathetic old-fashioned elephant rides at the zoo.
Contacted by OC Weekly in October, Santa Ana Zoo Manager Kent Yamaguchi defended the city-owned attraction's elephant rides, singling out the care for elephants practiced by contractor Have Trunk Will Travel (HTWT).
"I have worked with the elephant company for over 20 years and have seen first-hand how they care for their elephants," Yamaguchi wrote in an email to our Milena Enguidanos, going on to claim HTWT did not use bull hooks to intimidate their animals like other elephant handlers had.
"They treat their elephants like they are part of their family," Yamaguchi wrote. "Some of my staff have even worked with the elephants and lived with them while they were on the road and no one has ever reported any staff abuse toward the elephants. That is why I believe that HTWT does not do the things purported by PETA."
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