If you’ve seen a pachyderm featured prominently in a film — or a Britney Spears music video — over the last 20 or so years, chances are it was Tai, the hardest-working Asian elephant in the biz.
Tai made her film debut in “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book” (1994) and has been working steadily, to some controversy, ever since. Playing Rosie, an abused circus elephant in the 2011 film adaptation of Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel “Water for Elephants,” Tai garnered as much praise as a nearly 10,000-pound method actor can get. However, in addition to predicable noise from PETA, Tai was at the center of real-life abuse allegations (the deplorable mistreatment depicted in “Water for Elephants” was the result of CGI and special effects) when Animal Defenders International (ADI) released a short video that purportedly showed Tai being electrocuted with stun guns and beaten with bull hooks by her handlers some years before the filming of “Water for Elephants.”
Tai’s trainers/owners, Kari and Gary Johnson of Perris, Calif.-based Have Trunk Will Travel fired back at the abuse allegations, saying, “animal rights extremist groups are using Tai’s role in ‘Water for Elephants’ as a vehicle to take advantage of her celebrity to further efforts to remove elephants and all exotic animals from entertainment.” The Johnsons go on to explain that “the video shows heavily edited and very short snippets, obviously taken surreptitiously six years ago, purporting mistreatment of our elephants. If there was truly was something going on, why wait six minutes, much less six years?” A lawsuit filed by two members of ADI against the Johnsons was dismissed in December 2011.