May 11, 2011 / 12:44 AM / 7 years ago

Group claims elephant in Witherspoon film was abused

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The 9,000-pound (4,100 kg) co-star of the new Reese Witherspoon drama “Water for Elephants” was abused by its trainers, according to a group that is urging a boycott of the movie.

Animal Defenders International has released an undercover video from 2005 showing an elephant it identifies as the same one that appeared in the movie apparently being beaten with hooks and shocked with stun guns.

The heavily edited videoclip contains a sequence of brief scenes backed by mournful music. In one scene, an elephant make a loud noise while performing a headstand as a trainer appears to deliver an electric shock.

Coincidentally, “Water for Elephants” deals in part with animal abuse at a Depression-era circus. Its filmmakers and stars went to great lengths during their publicity efforts to proclaim that the animals were treated well, likely unaware of any mistreatment that may have taken place behind the scenes.

Animal Defenders said it released the footage to set the record straight. It was allegedly filmed at a California ranch as part of the group’s wider investigation into animal mistreatment.

The ranch is owned by a firm that hires out elephants to movie and video productions. Have Trunk Will Travel strongly defended itself in an emailed statement, describing Animal Defenders as an “extremist group” with “a history of using less than honest means to achieve their goals.”

“If there was truly any abuse going on why wait six minutes, much less six years?,” owners Gary and Kari Johnson said.

Gary Johnson told Reuters Television last month that Tai, the 42-year-old Asian elephant who stars in “Water for Elephants,” was very well treated.

The film’s distributor, 20th Century Fox, said in a statement that it was “disturbed and saddened” by the content of the video, but that it took every step to ensure that the animals in the production were treated humanely.

The studio said a representative of the American Humane Association was on the set throughout production, but Animal Defenders said that was beside the point.

“I don’t think it’s good for anyone to say, ‘I didn’t see any abuse in my presence,’ because you’re not going to,” Animal Defenders president Jan Creamer told Reuters. “You have to look at the whole life experience of the animal.”

She said the group did not release the video immediately because its focuses more on long-term work and industry-wide investigation. The alleged methods at the California ranch are commonplace, Creamer said.

The American Humane Association, reiterating that it did not see any mistreatment during production, said in a statement that it was not clear about all of the content on the video.

“We hope with all our heart that the disturbing images on it are not what they appear to be,” it said.

Ideally, Tai and the four other elephants at the ranch would be retired to an animal sanctuary, Creamer said, and Hollywood would turn to computer imagery instead of using real animals.

“There’s never any justification for using live animals as a form of entertainment,” she said.

In the meantime, she urged moviegoers to boycott both “Water for Elephants” and Tai’s upcoming appearance in the Kevin James comedy “Zookeeper.” A spokesman for Fox declined to comment on the boycott call, and an email to “Zookeeper” distributor Sony Pictures was not answered.

“Water for Elephants,” which also stars “Twilight” hunk Robert Pattinson, has earned $43 million since its April 22 release in North America, and $21 million internationally.

Editing by Jill Serjeant

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