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Animal activists, trainers spar over cruelty questions

By Judy Abel
Globe Correspondent / July 8, 2011

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When Tweet the giraffe died at the Franklin Park Zoo while filming “Zookeeper’’ almost two years ago, animal rights activists demanded an investigation. The necropsy report ultimately pointed to natural causes, but animal lovers did not take that as a sign to stand down.

Now, activists are nosing around for signs that Rosie, who plays Barry the elephant in “Zookeeper,’’ which opens today, endured cruelty during training. Animal Defenders International (ADI), an organization based in Los Angeles, London, and Bogota, filed a lawsuit in the US District Court, District of California, on June 27, claiming that Rosie and other film elephants undergo abusive training methods at the hands of their owners.

According to the complaint, the firm Have Trunk Will Travel, based in Perris, Calif., “secretly abused elephants . . . while simultaneously extolling their humane training methods and convincing the public to financially support their elephants by riding the elephants, renting the elephants, and watching the elephants in TV and movies.’’

Kari Johnson, who with her husband, Gary, owns Have Trunk Will Travel, said via telephone on Tuesday that she had not been served with the legal papers but had heard through others of ADI’s plans to sue. She declined verbal comment but issued a written statement calling the lawsuit “frivolous’’ and saying it constituted “harassment’’ by animal rights extremists.

“These groups have no basis of knowledge or experience working with elephants,’’ the statement asserts. “They have an agenda and a history of using less than honest means to achieve their goals. We have a stellar record of animal care with the legitimate federal, state, and local agencies that oversee elephant welfare.

“We are unwavering in our commitment to elephants,’’ it continues. “We stand by our care and training methods. We are proud of our contributions to elephant welfare and conservation.’’

Have Trunk Will Travel has been in operation for about 37 years and has provided elephants for films including “The Jungle Book’’ (1994), “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls’’ (1995), and “Evan Almighty’’ (2007). The firm has also supplied elephants used in commercials for Visa, Mastercard, Hewlett Packard, and others.

But Matt Rossell, campaigns director for ADI, said his organization secretly videotaped Johnson and other trainers beating the elephants with sharply pointed bull hooks and using electric shocking devices while training them prior to the filming of “Water for Elephants.’’

The footage, which can be viewed on the ADI website, shows trainers striking and dragging elephants. At one point, a woman who Rossell says is Johnson, turns to the person behind the camera and says, “Don’t you be takin’ pictures of me hookin’ on them.’’

Despite the controversy, “Zookeeper,’’ and “Water for Elephants,’’ which opened in April, carry disclaimers from the American Humane Association, a not-for-profit group that monitors safety for children and animals, that “no animals were harmed.’’

“The reality is the [American Humane Association’s] disclaimer that no animals were harmed gives no assurances to the compassionate public because training happens long before the animals make it to the movie set,’’ Rossell said.

Jone Bouman, director of communication for the American Humane Association’s film and television division, says her organization stands by the assertion that “no abuse or harm came to any animals’’ while filming “Zookeeper.’’

“There was no harm that happened on the set,’’ she said during a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “We were there every minute and saw nothing untoward. We have about 130 pages of very comprehensive guidelines that address hundreds of issues that include special effects, costume, props, and makeup.’’

Bouman said representatives of the American Humane Association do sometimes investigate the training of animals and had, in fact, visited the Have Trunk Will Travel facility. That said, she admitted that it is difficult to conduct comprehensive background checks for all animal training operations.

“We cannot monitor all the pre-training for all the movies - we simply cannot,’’ she said. “We are a nonprofit and we don’t have the resources.

“We do pre-production whenever we can, but we’re not there 24 hours a day, seven days a week,’’ she continued. “However, we are on set. That is our mission and that is what the American Humane Association has been doing since 1940. We are on set whenever there is an animal present and we make sure there is humane treatment during the production, which includes overseeing the things the animals do in front of the camera and also includes their housing, whether they’re fed, the temperature - all of those things.’’

Judy Abel can be reached at judyabel22@gmail.com.

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