Water for Elephants: Circus Cruelty is Not a Thing of the Past…

March 11th, 2011 by Nicole Meyer


Sara Gruen’s book, Water for Elephants, was a runaway best seller – an internationally acclaimed novel told as the reminiscences of an old man, Jacob, about his experiences with a Depression-era circus where he witnessed the brutalities inflicted on people and animals alike. Jacob is the moral center of the book, recognizing and, where possible, preventing those cruelties, and in the end saving the elephant Rosie from a harsh fate. The movie version of this blockbuster is set for release on April 22, and it will be huge. The stars (Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson), the story, and the pre-release buildup will combine to sell a lot of tickets.

Many people will be drawn to the movie as a lovely – though sometimes gritty – historical romance. They will watch the abuses heaped upon the animals and think about how sad it “used to be” and how much better everything is today. They will be wrong.

Elephants forced to work in circuses today, like those in the era depicted in Water for Elephants, are forced to lead unnatural, deprived lives. They suffer as Rosie suffers, year after year, with no Jacob to come to their rescue. It is no better for the other wild animals used by circuses, who spend their lives in cages and are brutalized into performing tricks for the public. They need your help.

The opening of Water for Elephants will provide us with a unique opportunity to tell people that the kind of cruelty depicted in the movie still goes on. So please save these dates: April 14 (Los Angeles premier), April 17 (New York premier), April 22 (general U.A. release).

Please plan to join IDA in bringing attention to the suffering endured by animals in the circus. You can help by coordinating or joining in events outside your local theaters to let moviegoers know that circus cruelty is not a thing of the past.

Please join our Elephant Task Force and Sign Up for IDA’s Enewsletter for more information about this opportunity to enlighten the public about circus cruelty.

The circus industry is hoping that the film will bring a shot of glamor and glory to a fading form of entertainment. There have already been efforts to use the film to generate sympathy for “Rosie” and to raise money for the International Elephant Foundation, an organization created and run by and for the circus and zoo industries. We need to inform the public that there is nothing glamorous or romantic about the kind of animal abuse rampant in circuses today.

Rather than helping circuses to flourish, Water for Elephants can and should be a catalyst for bringing about an end to the use of animals in entertainment. Elephants used in circuses, films, commercials, and other forms of entertainment are deprived of all that is natural in their lives. They have been torn from their families and subjected to unimaginably cruel training to break their spirits and make them easier to control. They are dominated through negative reinforcement, and trainers and handlers carry the constant threat of the bullhook, a steel-tipped device similar to a fireplace poker used to prod, stab, beat and intimidate elephants into submission.

Please note: Though the film portrays the circus’s treatment of animals in a negative light, IDA cannot endorse it. Unfortunately, the film’s producers did not take the book’s message to heart, instead choosing to use live animals during production of the movie. Rosie is played by the elephant Tai, who is owned by Have Trunk Will Travel, a California-based company that uses elephants for rides and for entertainment.

This blog was contributed by Deborah Robinson, IDA’s Captive Elephant Specialist.

30 Responses to “Water for Elephants: Circus Cruelty is Not a Thing of the Past…”

  1. July 16, 2013 at 2:15 am, Moon said:

    I just love animals! And another news… I just found out that Manila Zoo has a cute elephant named Mali, and she is the only elephant in the Philippines! She has lived there for almost all of her lives, for more than 30 years. The zoo should feel like her sweet and cozy home now. But then, I read some articles in, and I noticed that Mali is in fact sad and lonely! Look at her here: . She is like a prisoner, who cannot spend her days with her friends, roam in vast territories, and have delicious adequate food! She even suffers from foot problems. Why does she deserve this? :( Please Help Her!


  2. June 09, 2011 at 9:09 am, Catherine Doyle said:

    Hi Dani – Thanks for your comments. IDA sees this as an issue of two wrongs not making a right. The idea of using an elephant who is subjected to abusive training to portray an elephant who is being abused, is not ethically justifiable.
    As far as Tai being abused before the film was made: People need to understand that the horrific training seen in the ADI video starts at a very young age and continues for life. Just because there is no documentation of Tai’s training for Water for Elephants, doesn’t mean that that the abuse did not occur.
    It’s difficult when a film is made that has a good message but uses the wrong means to create it. But we need to stand firm and oppose the use of wild animals in any form of entertainment because of the lifelong suffering they endure.
    Today, the film industry has amazing technological resources — that’s the movie magic they need to use and not live animals.
    Catherine Doyle
    Elephant Campaign Director
    In Defense of Animals


  3. June 08, 2011 at 6:25 am, Dani said:

    I watched this movie tonight. It is very emotional, and the first time I wanted leave a cinema. But I stayed. Because I saw animal abuse in my childhood it hit me hard. And it should. PEOPLE NEED TO SEE THIS MOVIE. Right asia and around the world there are elephants being hit with bull-hooks- but you dont see it. So there WERENT before this people writing into blogs like this one angry.
    Tai was abused before this movie was made. But it will make millions of people around the world think about it. AND THAT IS MORE IMPORTANT. Tai has been abused- but how many countless others will it prevent for the future now that people are upset from this movie?!
    Animal cruelty needs to be incorporated into entertainment because it shoves it in the face of people who are ignorant to real issues. Think of how many causes have been addressed by films and documentaries.
    People are sheep and they might think differently next time they get on that elephant ride on their next Thailand Holiday and not click that elephants being hit with a hooked metal object is wrong.


  4. May 24, 2011 at 6:28 pm, Wendy Hickling said:

    I agree with all the comments listed and will NOT be going to the movie – I hate animal cruelty, especially in circus.

    Just watching the elephants being “trained” for the movie made me feel sick in the stomach.

    Brisbane, Qld, Australia


  5. May 10, 2011 at 7:04 am, Nicola said:

    I found this site because ADI sent me an email with a video of Tai the elephant who stars in this film being abused by his owners in 2005 the same company that leased her for this film. Apparently the stars in the film have been sent a copy of a dvd showing this abuse and ADI are asking for help. Can IDA help too. They are asking for people to get information packs from them to with sample letters and a copy of the dvd to pass on. This news has only just come out today.


  6. May 09, 2011 at 1:51 pm, al said:



  7. May 07, 2011 at 5:02 am, Karen said:

    I once had an argument with an owner of a circus. He tried to give me free tickets to his show and i refused them saying that I believed animal cruelty still runs rampant in the circus today and that even if the animals are treated with as much care as possible in the cramped and un-natural habitat they are forced to live in now, they were at some point in their early lives, captured and tortured in order to learn the tricks for the sake of discustingly selfish human entertainment and money gain. He said to me “They are safer here than in the wild where they are hunted for ivory.” This was his justification….like it makes it alright. Poachers and circus owners are exactly the same. Only circus owners are probably worse because at least a poacher wont humiliate the elephant for its entire life in a tent thats plonked in the middle of a suburban car park.


  8. April 29, 2011 at 9:07 pm, Amy said:

    I saw the movie tonight, before hand not having any idea what it was about… I am absolutley disgusted at the animal cruelty in it, and it makes me sick to know that likely still happens to those poor circus animals today.


  9. April 22, 2011 at 8:30 am, Jacqueline Deely said:

    I cannot bear to watch a movie that depicts such cruelty to animals. The only thing I can hope for out of this is that it will educate movie goers about what REALLY happens behind the scenes of circuses and although the movie is set in the 30′s, that it does continue to this day, not just in the USA, but around the globe. I am sure we all heard and read about Anne the circus elephant in the UK who was finally released from her cruel captures after a video of her horrific abuse hit the web. She had suffered for 58 years of her life as do many of these beautiful majestic animals still do who are in circuses in addition to those confined to inadequate facilities in many zoos. Having committed no crime, they are treated as prisoners. Makes me very sad and completely disillusioned with the human race.


  10. April 16, 2011 at 12:43 pm, Grace Enriquez said:

    What’s the difference between keeping animals in a zoo and those used in a circus? In both situations the animals are taken out of their natural habitat for monetary gains. Do you guys also boycott zoos? Just curious.


  11. April 13, 2011 at 2:44 am, Colleen Young said:

    I was very surprised to see that Reese Witherspoon was involved in a movie such as this, since I have long known her to be a champion in the fight against animal cruelty. Even watching the preview made me sick to my stomach, because I know that some form of abuse must have been/is prevelant with the elephant that was used in this movie. What is even worse is the glamorisation of the circus which contains animals acts, and which will no doubt encourage the more ignorant people to support the circus and, hence, its cruelty, which is the last thing that animals need, a boost or surge in an industry which contributes to their misery! Many thanks for the wonderful blog though, which is much appreciated.


  12. April 12, 2011 at 7:21 pm, Amy said:

    @Vicki – I absolutely agree with you that the book doesn’t romanticize the cruel treatment Rosie receives, and I really hope you are right that Twilight/Pattinson fans become more educated about elephant abuse in circuses because of the movie. However, I do worry about the message it sends using a live animal to make the film. We don’t know if Tai is well-treated by her current owners…I certainly hope so…but the truth is that performing those tricks doesn’t come naturally to elephants. Most captive elephants were captured when their herds were culled; they witnessed their mothers’ murders; they were kept on chains and beaten until they submitted. Should Tai have to spend her life entertaining us humans just because we say so? The idea that some movie studio is able to make an obscene amount of money because of her suffering…yesterday or 30 years ago…totally turns me off of the idea of seeing the movie.


  13. April 07, 2011 at 11:32 am, LB said:

    at first i wanted to see this movie until i became aware over the last week of the heartbreaking abuse of the 57 yr old annie circus elephant (video on you-tube). Now I want to do all I can to have all circus animals banned especially here in U.S. I cannot believe witherspoon or patterison would do a movie that’s abusing animals. Does anyone know for sure if this is being done? If so, I will boycott this- will have a hard time watching now that i know what’s been going on. People educate yourselves and demand a bann on all circus animals everywhere.


  14. April 05, 2011 at 2:46 am, Vicki said:

    I do not agree with animal cruelty in any way, shape or form. But I do not believe that the animals used in this film are poorly treated, nor do I believe that the large majority of it’s viewers will be so naïve as to romanticize the use of animals in circuses, most of Robert Pattinson’s fans, despite tabloid insistence, are actually women over the age of 20.

    Those that have read the book realise that this book/movie is not romanticizing the cruelty towards ‘Rosie’ and those that do abuse her, get whats coming to them.

    If anything this film is likely to inform people of the mistreatment of animals in the circus.

    The Robert Pattinson ‘fandom’ (or Twilight) are known for their charitable giving and raising awareness. The fact that Robert fell so deeply in love with Tai is even more likely to have an effect on his fans supporting the ban of elephants used in the circus – and support the charities of elephants worldwide.


  15. April 04, 2011 at 8:26 pm, Fernanda said:

    I’ve shared this article in the official page for the movie on Facebook. Please, also share with your family and friends. Thanks!


  16. March 30, 2011 at 1:00 pm, Deb Robinson said:

    We will provide leaflets and keep track of events so that people can find others who are interested. Please email me at if you are interested in organizing or participating in an event. Thanks!


  17. March 21, 2011 at 7:54 am, Lori Giliberto said:

    I have never, and will never, support circuses. I have always felt that they were cruel and not worthy of support, even when I was a child. My kids have never gone and I would love to see them abolished and the animals that are in them now spend their remaining days in a sanctuary. Maybe if people stopped contributing to them by giving them their business, circuses would be another thing of the past. That circuses even made it into the new century is sad. There are any number of reasons that you would think people recognised circuses as wrong but they still continue.


  18. March 21, 2011 at 7:02 am, Linda Brown said:

    I agree that the opening of this movie would be a great opportunity to open people’s eyes on the cruelty these beautiful animals go through. April 22 is the general release, I’m in Atlanta any plans anyone to make this happened? Please let me know…


  19. March 13, 2011 at 10:54 am, liz Braxton said:

    I’m in, can’t wait. This needs to stop! we need to put in end to all types of animal abuse.


  20. March 12, 2011 at 7:33 pm, Theresa Bauer said:

    We definitely need to help. We cant sit back and say i wish that would stop because wishing doesn’t make a difference. What makes a difference is the real help and support from us. When will there be a change to this? Will there be a change? If humans can stand abusing an animal as powerful as an elephant or any other show animal than they are completely ignorant and think nothing of what they are doing is wrong.


  21. March 11, 2011 at 3:25 pm, iris lambka said:

    This abuse has gone on year after year and nothing seems to get any better for these poor suffering animals When will this ALL STOP We don’t seem to be getting anywhere in helping them get to sanctuaries WHY I ask myself ?How is it we cannot help ?


  22. March 11, 2011 at 2:23 pm, Deb Robinson said:

    Raising awareness in the people who are going to the movie is exactly what we have planned. Further details will follow, so please stay tuned!


  23. March 11, 2011 at 1:51 pm, Rachel Wolf said:

    I plan to boycott the movie and will not see it. I am outraged that they used live elephants. This makes 20th Century Fox and 3 Arts Entertainment no better than the circuses. We need to picket screenings of the movie, and have pamphlets that make people aware the elephants in the movie were also subjected to abuse, thereby making it all very hypocritical. The studio needs to help raise awareness on the plight of elephants. What is “Have Trunk Will Travel?” Is this someone making elephants perform and provide rides? If so, let’s shut him down, too. Tell me how to help – I’m in.


  24. March 11, 2011 at 12:20 pm, Water for Elephants: Circus Cruelty is Not a Thing of the Past… | Asian Elephants Today said:

    Water for Elephants: Circus Cruelty is Not a Thing of the Past…. March 11th, 2011 |  Author: Catherine Doyle


  25. March 11, 2011 at 12:07 pm, Deb Robinson said:

    Just to clarify – we are not asking anyone to go to the movie. In fact, as the last paragraph, above, indicates, we deplore the fact that performing animals were used in the filming. We would hope that anyone who feels as we do about the abuse of elephants in the entertainment history would not want to contribute to that abuse by going to the movie.

    Our plan is to inform people who DO go to the movie – these will be people who aren’t really aware of the abuse, and who come out of the movie aware that it happened in the past – we will be taking the opportunity to explain that things haven’t changed significantly for the animals.

    Thanks for your support!


  26. March 11, 2011 at 11:07 am, SF said:

    Is this movie using animal actors? If so, how is it any better?
    Animals shouldn’t perform tricks for cameras either.
    If the animals are special effects or special sanctuary animals, can someone please fill me in? I’d love to hear that it’s animal-free or somehow more ethical. I’ve had a really hard time swallowing the idea of this movie.


  27. March 11, 2011 at 11:03 am, Cindy Wines said:

    I will not be able to go and see the movie. I would get too upset. I actually met Tai when she was in Tucson giving rides to people at the fair. I had brought bagss of apples and bananas to the two elephants that were there by Have Trunk will Travel. I had no idea that she was the elephant featured in the film. I would have been more vocal to the owners. I had mentioned that I knew Pat Derby and he had said she does not like them because of this movie. I did not put 2 + 2 together.
    I hope we can make people aware of the abuse of the horrible life for the elephants, tigers, bears and lions so we can shut down this archaic abusive industry. Maybe this will be a turning point. We must pray on this.


  28. March 11, 2011 at 11:01 am, Tonya Kay said:

    I’m in.


  29. March 11, 2011 at 9:48 am, john639 said:

    Wish I could watch this movie but I think I would be too upset at the abuse of these amazing and beautiful animals.
    I know elephants are much more intelligent and sensitive than humans can even imagine and their suffering is beyond our ability to comprehend.


  30. March 11, 2011 at 9:37 am, Lorrie Morris said:

    What a terrific idea!


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