Many of our favorite shows have animals featured regularly in them, but we don’t often think about what it means when an animal is actually onscreen. Behind the scenes, there are teams of trainers and other technicians who work with animals to get them ready for their scenes.
In some cases, these animals have to do complex stunts which require plenty of additional training. Although most productions require teams on-site to ensure that the animals are not harmed during the production, these rules aren’t always followed to the letter.
One recent show has found itself in the middle of a controversy on that point as well.
If you’re a fan of prestige television, there’s a good chance you’ve been keeping up with Westworld on HBO.
For those who don’t know, Westworld is based on a 1973 film of the same name written and directed by Michael Crichton. The show depicts a futuristic amusement park where rich businessmen can enact their fantasies, all for a price. In a recent episode, however, the show had two elephants carry some characters to a base camp to hunt a tiger. Still, the scene has garnered the attention of various animal rights activists.
As it turns out, the training regimen these animals had to go through was anything but humane.
The organization behind many of the elephants you’re likely to see in movies or television is a California-based group called Have Trunk Will Travel (HTWT).
While a movie set may have animal handlers on-site to make sure that they aren’t harmed during the actual production of a film, that doesn’t say as much about the training the animals have to endure before production begins to be able to perform complex feats and tricks. As recently as 2005, Animal Defenders International (ADI) sent private investigators undercover to see how these animals were being treated during the training process.
Needless to say, what the team uncovered was not pretty.
The ADI was able to find footage of elephant training that is brutal to watch—sensitive viewers may not be able to handle it.
In the clip, several of HTWT’s elephants can be seen being prodded and whipped with sticks, prodded with bullhooks and even tased. Workers in the footage can also be seen grabbing the trunks of baby elephants as a way to assert dominance over them while the animals seem visibly uncomfortable and anxious. The Dodo wrote a story covering these alleged abuses and included and interview with Toni Frohoff, an elephant biologist working with In Defense of Animals (IDA):
“Have Trunk Will Travel has exhibited some of the most vicious and sadistic treatment of elephants, including babies, that I have seen on film in my over 30 years as a wildlife behavioral biologist . . . there’s no excuse or justification for abusing elephants like this, nor for mishandling a helpless baby’s sensitive trunk, as is shown.”
Though the footage that was recently re-released is over 10 years old, the ADI believes that the same methods are being used to train elephants today.
While HTWT has not released any comments of its own, HBO was quick to explain that the footage does not reflect their own beliefs about animal practices:
“All of the animals featured on HBO series are treated with the utmost care and respect for their health, safety and well-being. A certified animal safety representative from American Humane was present at all times during any animal action on the set of ‘Westworld.’ The AHA has confirmed that the animals were well-treated, and the production received the designation of ‘No Animals Were Harmed.’”
Despite this statement, questions remain about the sourcing of animal talent for these productions and what methods they use to train their animals. Above all, animals rights organizations recommend that viewers “vote with heir wallets” by not supporting entertainment that uses these kinds of animals at all.
If you were shocked by this story, consider giving a donation to the ADI or the IDA—and remember to stay vigilant about practices like these!
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