I recently returned from a lengthy trip to Asia, where I taught traditional mahouts (trainers) a gentler, more humane way of training and working with captive elephants.
Viewing the undercover video exposing the abuse of Tai, the elephant star of “Water for Elephants,” was unnerving. The techniques circus trainers in America use are identical to the traditional, antiquated and abusive methods of breaking and training elephants used by mahouts in Asia that have been handed down for centuries.
As in Asia, American circuses embody tradition, animal abuse for public entertainment. Being involved in the circus for nearly fifteen years gave me ample exposure to this abuse. Even though we have made huge advances in our knowledge about elephant intelligence and suffering, this tradition has, sadly, thus far failed to evolve.
There is an alternative to these harsh training methods, if indeed elephants must be trained. I am pioneering the field of positive reinforcement training in the traditional free contact environment in Asia. Although I do not condone the commercial use of elephants, I am realistic enough to know that my personal concerns will not put a stop to the shows and rides that exploit elephants there. Only through education targeted at elephant trainers, mahouts, and the insatiable public can the abuse be curtailed and eventually stopped.
It is uncanny that Tai’s abuse was exposed as result of her portrayal of an abused elephant in “Water for Elephants.” By enforcing existing regulations and strengthening laws to protect the innocent, the antiquated training practices of the circus in America can be eradicated.
I am of the firm belief that if the only way an elephant can be on public display is to be dominated with harsh control methods then we, as a society, are required to forfeit the opportunity to have elephants in captivity.