Hollywood's Spin on the Use of Captive Animals

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Hollywood's Spin on the Use of Captive Animals

From Patty Shenker, 2/23/11

But looking at the recent publicity around the upcoming film, Water for Elephants, I would have to suggest that it is actually the people who use animals in entertainment who are doing the anthropomorphizing, that is, telling us what Tai is thinking and feeling. I mean, does anyone really believe that Tai, the poor elephant starring in the film, wants to be a “star”?

The bullhook may not have been seen by the other actors or the director on the set of Water for Elephants but, rest assured, it was seen by Tai every second she was on location. That’s why she seemed so sweet and docile; the bullhook kept her behaving much like a gun to your head would keep you behaving.

For the next six weeks, until the release of the film, Water for Elephants, the public relations for this film will be very busy putting a spin on the use of captive wildlife in entertainment. Their job is to convince movie-goers that using these animals in films is fine but the truth is it isn’t. Here’s a portion of one of these spins:

Tai is cast in the role of Rosie in the film, Water for Elephants. She is a 42 year old female Asian elephant. At 8’ 8” feet tall and close to 9,000 pounds Tai really is the biggest star in Hollywood. Her co-stars are never jealous of her looks and talent because of her winning personality and sweet disposition. Who says an over 40, female, plus-size actor with wrinkles and little gray can’t get work?”

Home is Have Trunk Will Travel Ranch in Perris, California where Tai lives with five other elephants and her human family. When she is home she gets baths, exercise, training and relaxing time along with the other elephants. When Tai is on set she gets the same care, along with a lot of human attention from the cast and crew.

Tai travels in a state-of-the-art 48’ long specially built trailer. It has everything she needs to keep her cool and comfortable. The trailer is a good place for her to relax and snack during breaks from filming. She also enjoys stretching her legs and exploring the location.

What you have just read above is absolute public relations for the benefit of the film industry and those who work within it to convince people that performing captive wildlife are happy and well taken care of. The industries that use, and therefore abuse, wild animals have always accused animal advocates of “anthropomorphizing” but I have to point to them instead. The definition of anthropomorphism is “the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal or object.”

Just this week in February, 2011, in the Los Angeles Times’ movie review of The Last Lions, the film critic, Kenneth Turan, wrote:

There is, as may be inevitable in nature films, a certain amount of anthropomorphizing going on here, a determination to give human characteristics to animals who may or may not have them. This starts with naming the protagonist and making believe the lioness knows what’s she called. It extends to engaging in animal mind-reading, telling us what this or that beast is thinking or feeling at a given moment.

But looking at the recent publicity around the upcoming film, Water for Elephants, I would have to suggest that it is actually the people who use animals in entertainment who are doing the anthropomorphizing, that is, telling us what Tai is thinking and feeling. I mean, does anyone really believe that Tai, the poor elephant starring in the film, wants to be a “star”?

Do you think she’s excited to be starring with Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattison? Do you really think she looks at that trailer as her “limo”? And do you really think an elephant should be doing head stands? Really? I mean- come on! This is utter nonsense.

Now I‘m sure that the stars and the director and the crew loved working with Tai but please don’t presume that she felt the same. They’re also thrilled about using an elephant that they’re hoping will bring in a larger audience and more profits. Have Trunk will Travel is thrilled as they will get more business (Tai was just used in the new TV show, Mr. Sunshine) and can keep getting richer as they continue to spread lies about the humane use of captive wildlife in entertainment, such as how excited these kidnapped and imprisoned wild animals are to be “stars.”

Last summer, this same agency, Have Trunk Will Travel, was planning to have one of their elephants in the Fourth of July parade in Pacific Palisades. Many protested and we stopped the plan. One Palisadian resident, who most wanted the elephant in the parade, despite serious safety issues, wrote saying how sad that the elephant wouldn’t “be able to work on July 4th”. Think of that extra pay she lost because we stopped her from being in the parade!

The absurdity of that statement should speak for itself and is a true example of anthropomorphism. The work Tai would like to do is foraging, taking care of her female family and just being an elephant. The truth is that Tai and all the other wildlife used in entertainment don’t want to be stars; they want to be back home in the wild with their herd, their true freedom and their self-determination. They don’t want a custom limo to travel; they prefer to walk as it keeps them healthy and because that’s what elephants do with most of their time naturally.

In the wild, these intelligent, family and community-oriented pachyderms are on the move for 20 hours a day, exploring their environment, foraging, socializing, caring for their young, and searching for mates and distant friends and relations. Film people can speak honestly about their naïve feelings and sheer excitement at working with these unconsenting animals but they cannot pretend to know that these animals want to be a part of show business. Just because many of us want to be famous doesn’t mean that animals do...that again is anthropomorphism!

The truth is that they are wild animals, who have been kidnapped and forced to live in unnatural conditions that wreck havoc on their physical and psychological health. They have been brutally separated from the families they would spend their entire lives with, “broken” by the horrible “crush box”, imprisoned and constantly threatened by the bullhook or other forms of punishment.

Elephant expert, Joyce Poole, writes:

“The bullhook is a steel-tipped device similar to a fireplace poker that is used to prod, hook, jab (so-called “guiding”) and strike elephants. Even when not in use, this weapon is a constant reminder of the pain and punishment that can be meted out at any time, for any reason. So powerful is the negative association with the bullhook that an elephant who has not even seen the device in years will respond immediately to its mere presence.”

The bullhook may not have been seen by the other actors or the director on the set of Water for Elephants but, rest assured, it was seen by Tai every second she was on location. That’s why she seemed so sweet and docile; the bullhook kept her behaving much like a gun to your head would keep you behaving. So let’s keep our human needs and wants and feelings to ourselves but let’s leave the animals alone- to their own feelings and thoughts and needs. In fact, let’s do even better. Let’s educate ourselves to their true needs and wants and get them out of a forced life of misery and ill-health in captivity for our own entertainment. It’s killing them- even as we selfishly and foolishly convince ourselves that they love it! If you really care about elephants, skip this movie and watch a truly astonishing documentary, Echo, a PBS film, about these remarkable creatures in the wild, where they belong!