Like Popcorn for Elephants

I’ve been counting down the days until Water for Elephants hits the theaters. The film adaptation of Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel opens nationwide today. It tells the story of a human love triangle set in a traveling circus during the Great Depression. It’s also a love story of sorts between the main character, Jacob, and a circus elephant named Rosie. Jacob is played by Rob Pattinson, and Rosie is played by a 42-year-old Asian elephant named Tai.

While looking over the images available on various fan sites for the movie, I was intrigued by images of its elephant star on the set, especially images of her with her A-list costars, Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, and outside her own custom trailer. I wondered about the role of communication between trainer and elephant and between the elephant and the human actors. So I got in touch with the folks at Have Trunk, Will Travel, in Parris, California. Trainer Kari Johnson of HTWT was kind enough to answer some questions about elephant communication, Hollywood style.

AD: How many motion pictures has Tai appeared in?

KJ: Tai has had major roles in “Operation Dumbo Drop,” “Larger Than Life,” “George of the Jungle,” and “The Jungle Book.” My guess is that she has had smaller roles in about twenty other films and many, many commercials and television appearances.

Has she seen herself on film? Does she react to moving images of herself or other elephants?

She won’t fit in a movie theater seat so she has never seen herself on the big screen! Our elephants’ travel trailers are shiny so they reflect her image and they are big enough so that she can see her whole body, all 9,000 beautiful pounds. She loves see her reflection in them. She puts her eye right up to the trailer and moves back and forth.

You spend a lot of time around Tai and the other elephants at HTWT. Tell me what you’ve observed first hand about elephants’ many ways of communicating (gesture, vocalization, odor/scent, vibration, silent “rumbles”).

All of our elephants are very vocal and although they all communicate through squeaks, rumbles, trumpets, infrasound, and everything in between they each make distinctive sounds that reflect their very different personalities. We call the high-pitched sounds the elephants use when they “talk” to us “happy noise.” Some of the times we hear “happy noise” are when they are excited about our presence, when we praise them and when we bring them treats. The sounds they use to communicate with each other are usually lower sounds, like rumbles and infrasound that is too low for us to hear. We know they are communicating with each other when they stand still with their ears out and we see the front of their trunk, in the middle just below their eyes, vibrating. Sometimes we hear it, sometimes we don’t. The sounds come from different areas of their heads, mouths and trunks depending on who they are talking to what they are talking about.

Elephants’ hearing and smell are very sensitive and more developed than their eyesight. They touch and smell each other and their environment often to gather information.

In 2007 researchers reported results of a study that showed that African elephants react aggressively toward red, a color worn by Maasai herders who traditionally spear elephants as a rite of passage. Does Tai seem to know her colors or associate certain colors with certain people?

I have not been able to determine whether or not Tai and the other elephants see in color. I have asked veterinarians and researchers that question and although they believe that it is a possibility I have never gotten a definite yes or no. I am not so sure about the elephants recognizing the Maasai by color because if they are close enough for an elephant to see they are close enough to smell. I would love to know for sure! I do remember reading the Maasai article when it came out. It is very interesting but we haven’t noticed our elephants reacting to color, of course no one wearing red has been trying to kill them!

I noticed on the Water for Elephants website a picture of Tai getting a pedicure. Does she seem to enjoy it? We humans associate pedicures with being pampered, but foot care is really keeping her happy and healthy, isn’t it?

Our elephants each get a pedicure about once a month. I do not believe they associate it with being pampered exactly but they are used to it and do not mind having it done at all. It is very important for elephants to have healthy feet. Our exercise program also helps keep their feet in good shape. They do associate their morning bath with being pampered. We scrub their skin with stiff brushes every morning that keeps it in excellent condition. You can see on their faces and tell by the way they sometimes fall asleep that they consider that pampering.

What is inside her movie trailer?

Tai’s movie trailer was specially built with her safety and comfort in mind. It has a circulating ventilation system to keep her cool when it’s hot and insulation to keep her warm when it’s cold. There are sliding screen doors for privacy and separate compartments to hold her food and equipment. Tanks built into the trailer carry fresh water. Tai can rest and snack comfortably in her trailer between shots. Living quarters for her caretakers are built in too because our elephants are always provided with 24-hour monitoring and care.

How did Tai communicate with the other actors and the director on the set? Was all her communication through you, as a kind of translator, or did she eventually respond to cues from her costars and the director?

The director always communicates through us to instruct Tai. As her trainers we have developed the respect and trust that comes with spending lots of time with her to nurture our relationship. It is the trainers’ responsibility to earn an elephant’s trust by never putting her in a situation where she could be hurt. That way, when we ask Tai to do something that could seem scary, she knows that we will protect her from harm and that it is okay to do it. An example would be when the tent in the movie collapses while she is inside. She had the faith in her trainers, who were standing nearby, to know that if we exposed her to the situation that she would be okay so it was no big deal for her.

There is that wonderful picture of RP and Tai in the straw, where Pattinson is in a tuxedo and Tai has her trunk wrapped rather possessively around his leg. What is the story behind that scene? Was RP nervous being that close to such a huge animal? Were there many takes?

Rob was completely comfortable with Tai and had no fear of her at all. He said he was a little hesitant when they first met because of her size but before that first introduction was over he had ridden on top of her, let her pick him up and all had all kinds of fun. That still is taken from a scene after one of the parties when Rob’s character, “Jacob,” goes into the railroad car to check on Tai’s character, “Rosie.” The interaction between the two of them was loving and natural for real so it was an easy shot to get.

Does she like popcorn?

Tai loves, loves, loves popcorn! No butter please. Elephants are herbivores and eat a wide variety of plants, fruits and vegetables. Popcorn is a tasty, crunchy way to eat a vegetable.

Thank you for doing a Q&A for my Elephant Talk blog. I hope Water for Elephants is an enormous hit, pun intended, and I hope next Oscar season we get to see Tai on the red carpet with Reese and Rob! Can you close by telling me a little bit about how you became a trainer and the role of elephants like Tai in improving the lives of elephants everywhere?

Kari Johnson of Have Trunk, Will Travel with Tai

My stepfather was an elephant trainer. I started as his full-time apprentice when I was 14. So I’ve been living with and caring for elephants for 39 years. My husband, Gary, loved elephants from an early age, too. He actually owned his first elephant at age 16. That would not even be a possibility today with all the regulations and licenses required to own elephants. We met when I was 15 and Gary was 16 and married in 1985. Our dream was always to have a place of own where we could live with our elephants and run a breeding program for this endangered species. We have realized that dream and have had four baby elephants born over the years.

Elephants are a full time job. Our day starts at 6:30 and ends at the elephants’ last feeding at 10:PM. We work together with the elephants doing shows, rides, movies, commercials and special events to earn the money to maintain the ranch where we all live, provide for the elephants’ futures and fund our breeding program as well as the conservation and elephant health research projects that we help with. I love the fact that HTWT allows elephants and people to work together to help make all elephants’ lives healthier.

Our elephants are ambassadors for their species. We are helping to preserve elephants in their natural habitat by sharing our elephants with the public and giving public demonstrations that bring attention to the elephants and their plight in the wild. It is easier to care about something when you have a personal experience to draw from. We participate in research projects to help preserve the dwindling wild elephant population. We support the International Elephant Foundation, an organization that supports and operates elephant conservation and education programs in managed facilities and in the wild, with an emphasis on management, protection and scientific research.

You can learn more here about Have Trunk, Will Travel, and their participation in the Species Survival Plan to help ensure the survival of Asian elephants for generations to come. And you can learn much, much more about elephant communication and the human-elephant relationship in my book, ELEPHANT TALK.

Images: Top, from the trailer for the film. Other images courtesy Have Trunk, Will Travel.

Note from the author, May 22, 2011: I have disabled commenting on this post. I do not wish my website, which is visited by young readers, to become a soapbox for animal rights activists, who have plenty of bandwidth elsewhere on the WWW to make their points.