I know it's an exciting week for you, and I'm sorry to bring some seriousness to the party, but I've been putting off writing this - since I am really conflicted about your participation in the film Water for Elephants.
I want to support and enjoy everything you do, but I am adamantly against the use of wild animals in entertainment (I'm actually against all animal exploitation, but we'll save that for another day...).
Since I'm delusional enough to believe you'll actually read this, and am hopeful enough to believe you have animals' true interests at heart, I'm writing to you - for Tai.
I don't know Tai's specific history before she ended up at Have Trunks Will Travel, the business that owns and uses her for their for-profit elephant "rental" operation, but I do know that she was born in the wild, somewhere in Asia. Either she was stolen from her mother and family (maybe her family was killed in order to steal and sell her) or she was left an orphan due to the poaching of her family and then sold. It's possible she was orphaned in some less nefarious way, though unlikely. Her records show she was at Lion Country Safari in Florida for many years, although I'm not sure what her circumstances were there or why she was sold.
I am sure though that Tai has been forced to exist without the one thing elephants desire more than anything else - their families. They live in large matriarchal groups with sisters, aunts, cousins and juvenile males. The females all share in the rearing and care of the family's offspring. The families live in specific home ranges, have sophisticated communication systems and are incredibly social. The females stay with their female family their entire lives.
We can only imagine the kind of fear and trauma Tai experienced - did she witness the violent murder of her mother, her family? What was it like to be shipped overseas to live in a foreign environment? She must have spent much of her time chained up, since that is standard practice. She was probably forced to learn "tricks" by being pulled and tugged by ropes as a young calf. We can hope she wasn't hit with the bullhook that has been used to control her every action and reaction, or that she has never been shocked with an electic prod - and that she has been among other elephants for much of her life. But who knows? Tai can't tell us, which proves convenient for those who exploit her.
The following are recent undercover photos/stills taken of Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus staff "training" elephant babies to perform; babies that were weaned too early and removed from their mothers. Many calves in Ringling's "care" have died horrible deaths. This is standard in the "elephant entertainment industry" and the people that work at Ringling are many of the same people that have, or will, work with Tai.
Tai seems to have escaped an even worse life of zoo imprisonment (much of which ends up being solitary and grossly inadequate) or the torment of a circus (chained on trains and trucks, chained at venues, forced to perform in loud arenas, beatings from abusive staff, physical ailments from concrete floors, mental stress). But she is still forced to travel, obey commands, perform unnatural "tricks" and endure what must be abject boredom and loneliness as she is shuttled around, without her family, or whatever family she's been forced to adopt among other enslaved elephants. You said yourself, Rob, that the animals on set seemed utterly bored and did little but sleep. It's not surprising when you take wild animals and imprison them - removed from any natural instincts, their family or environment.
I know how much you loved being with Tai, Rob, but you never should have been. Wild animals should never be captured or bred and used for profit - they don't exist to entertain us. They are not domesticated - like dogs and cats - and must be broken and forced to obey their capturers. And elephants, just due to their sheer size, weight, and social needs - suffer incredibly in captivity - both physically and mentally.
For-profit organizations will claim that breeding programs are some kind of conservation effort - but they are lying. There is no intention or means to repopulate wild herds in Asia or Africa. Elephants are bred only to keep exploiting them for money - to keep a captive herd available. The only way to assist wild elephant populations is to address the issues facing elephants in their natural habitats, not by forcibly impregnating females in a Ringling barn, or at the local zoo, or at an elephant-for-hire entertainment business in the United States.
There will obviously always be exceptions - where elephants will be forced into the care of humans and interactions will occur. But these interactions should only be taking place in sanctuaries or rehab centers - where the primary goals are either to allow elephants to live out life in as natural an environment as possible, or receive rehabiliation in order to be released back to their homes and families.
Here is the most beautiful story of an elephant reunion at The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee. I highly recommend taking the time to watch this:
You recently mentioned in an interview the beating of Anne, the elephant in the Bobby Roberts Super Circus, and how upsetting this incident was to you.
Thankfully Anne was finally sent to a sanctuary after the undercover footage was revealed - putting an end to circus elephants in the UK. She unfortunately will not be with an elephant herd and suffers from captive-inducted arthritis - but at least she will live in peace for the rest of her life.
I wish I could tell you that the beating of circus elephants was a rare occurence or a practice left behind in the 30's with elephants like Rosie, but that's not the case. Ringling and other animal circuses have been caught time and time again abusing elephants. The people who "own" Tai are part of a large network in the elephant-profit business all related by marriage, family and work histories. You wondered out loud how they get Tai to do her "tricks". It's pretty standard that they get elephants to do those things through fear, pain and intimidation - starting so young that they know nothing else. Even China has banned animal circuses, because of their inherent abuse. Animal circuses are a "tradition" that need to end.
2009 undercover video of Ringling staff hitting elephants:
Undercover circus-elephant "training" video - one trainer showing a potential trainer how to "train" the elephants:
Watch Elephants in Circuses: Training & Tragedy in Entertainment | View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com
You are in a unique position to help elephants, Rob. You've had a relationship with one. You have a national stage and a proclaimed love for animals. You've mentioned World Wildlife Fund (WWF) as your favorite charity and that you just rescued your dog Bear from execution at an animal shelter. And as an increasing force in Hollywood, you can work to convince film makers that if they can't find a way to include wild animals through animation or CGI in a film, then they don't need to make it.
Here's an organization - Elephant Nature Park - that is rescuing abused animals in Thailand and working there to ensure things change in their homeland. They are real conservationists who don't force elephants to perform.
If the elephants could thank you, Rob, they would.