(from 2011*) In the past week, I’ve been sent two Facebook requests to boycott the film Water for Elephants. ADI (Animal Defenders International) says that Have Trunk Will Travel, trainers of the elephants in the film, use abusive methods. This contradicts the trainers’ statement that they only use positive reinforcement.
I watched the 2005 video ADI provided, and I think I don’t know enough about elephants to know. I went to Sara Gruen’s website. She wrote the novel on which the movie is based. She is a supporter of animal welfare and several specific animal sanctuaries. While the author of the original material may not have much say over the movie production, having read her other novels, I couldn’t imagine Ms. Gruen not caring about the animal stars of a work in which she’s got a vested interest. But I still don’t know.
I don’t think the trainers did themselves a favour by saying they only use reward-based training methods. No way electric prods look like positive reinforcement. But used in conjunction with reward? Necessary for effectiveness and safety? I don’t know. I do know that they and bull hooks do not look nice. But the appearance of something shouldn’t be the sole criterion for judging it. Lots of things don’t look nice, but there may be valid reasons for their use. Also, anything can be an instrument of cruelty if used incorrectly or to deliberately inflict pain. A dog’s leash, a horse’s reins.
Two things this controversy made me think about:
1. Shock collars. Many trainers condemn their use, saying they’re just a lazy way to train a dog. Other trainers sell them to people (I got a salespitch on their virtues when talking to a trainer about my dog’s poop-eating habit.) I know a barky dog who can live happily in an apartment building because she wears an electrified “bark collar” when left alone. Without it, I don’t know what would happen. But the bottom line is, those collars administer shocks of varying intensity to dogs. And electric shock is not only used for retraining bad behaviour. “Invisible fencing” relies on a shock if the dog gets too close to the boundary. It’s selling like hotcakes.
2. When learning to ride, my teacher told me “kick him” when my horse would not move forward with just verbal clucks. I kicked a bit. “Harder” she yelled, “kick him like you mean it.” I couldn’t. I felt I was betraying our friendship by kicking him. She told me to watch the horses in the field and see what they do to each other. I did, and sure enough, I watched ‘my’ horse give his best friend a big old kick when he got too near the hay. There is no way I could ever kick as hard as he did.
When I learned to kick, he looked back at me like “ok, you’re learning horse language now!” I learned to use spurs, a riding crop and a longe whip. I try to keep my hands steady. Reins jerking ‘giddyup’ style does cause a horse pain. With me knowing proper use of equipment, we began riding as a team.
All methods of control and training can be abused and therefore cruel. All, aside from sheer brutality, can also be used correctly. Until I try handling an elephant, I won’t opine on how to do it.
*First posted on my St. Thomas Dog Blog May 12/11. Since then, I’ve read Water for Elephants and it is absolutely wonderful.