2ND UPDATE, 8:51 AM: PETA has responded to HBO’s statement Monday about the use of what the animal-rights group says are abused elephants in the drama series Westworld. Rachel Mathews, PETA Foundation’s Associate Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement, said in a statement:
HBO and its producers cannot honestly claim any high ground or provide any assurances in this case, as they’ve been sitting on this footage showing elephants screaming in pain as trainers hit, jab, and electroshock them since June 2016, when PETA first wrote to them about the use of an elephant from Have Trunk Will Travel for an episode of Silicon Valley. As anyone who follows these issues knows, American Humane—which supports the use of bullhooks, now banned in California and elsewhere and the same weapon used on Tai and other elephants in the disturbing eyewitness footage—does not monitor off-set living conditions or preproduction training methods. Furthermore, its failure to keep animals safe has been well documented: It was on set when three horses died during the filming of the HBO series Luck and famously gave A Dog’s Purpose its “no animals were harmed” distinction, despite video footage showing a terrified dog who was forced into churning water. If the network truly cared about the well-being of animals, it would stop hiding behind a disgraced organization that supports outfits with sordid histories and end its use of wild animals, instead of responding to media inquiries with a statement designed to mislead the public.
UPDATED with response from HBO, May 7: Earlier today, PETA blasted HBO for using abused elephants in the latest episode of Westworld from Have Trunk Will Travel, one of the last companies that provide elephants for the entertainment industry. The animal-rights org’s message included video footage from the HTWT compound taken in 2011 that showed elephants being abused, one of them an elephant that appeared in Sunday night’s episode.
In a statement obtained by Deadline from HBO, the cable network says the treatment of the animals in the HTWT footage does not reflect the network’s on-set practices and clarifies that all animals used in their shows “are treated with the utmost care and respect for their health, safety and well-being.” Here’s the full statement:
All of the animals featured on HBO series are treated with the utmost care and respect for their health, safety and well-being. A certified animal safety representative from American Humane was present at all times during any animal action on the set of Westworld. The AHA has confirmed that the animals were well-treated, and the production received the designation of “No Animals Were Harmed.” We are reviewing the circumstances related to archival training footage which included one of the elephants that appeared in the series. Of course, none of this video was shot during the production and does not in any way reflect practices on our sets.
PREVIOUS: HBO has come under fire after PETA slammed the cable network for using abused animals. The allegations came after a video from 2011 surfaced showing eyewitness footage of elephants being abused in the Have Trunk Will Travel compound. PETA claims that one of the elephants in the video was used in the sci-fi drama Westworld.
PETA Manager of Animals in Film and Television Lauren Thomasson wrote an open letter to Casey Bloys, HBO President of Programming saying, “Public opposition to the use of animals for entertainment is stronger than ever—evident from the closure of Ringling Bros. circus after 146 years of exploitation and the dozens of travel companies that have pulled elephant rides from their offerings. She adds, “Considering the realistic and cruelty-free CGI technology that exists today, all wild animals in HBO series should be computer-generated.”
This is not the first time HBO has been dragged for animal abuse. In 2012, the former director of the American Humane Association’s film and production unit alleged she was fired because she urged the AHA to report the alleged abuse of horses on the set of the HBO series Luck starring Dustin Hoffman. In March 2012, HBO canceled the series after a fourth horse died. HBO has also used various wild animals that would scare Dorothy and the gang from The Wizard of Oz. Lions, tigers, and bears were featured in shows like Silicon Valley, Vice Principals, and The Leftovers.
PETA also released a statement to press saying, “Animals used in film and TV are often kept in extreme and distressing confinement, deprived of everything that’s natural and important to them, and subjected to abusive training methods, including beatings and the use of electric prods and bullhooks, without which they would simply walk off the set.”
In the video below, an eyewitness documented footage from Have Trunk Will Travel, one of the last companies that provide elephants for the entertainment industry, PETA said its experts have identified one of the elephants used in Westworld as Tai, who can be seen crying out as she’s electrically shocked at HTWT’s training compound. The elephants were introduced in Sunday night’s episode which — SPOILER ALERT — introduced the new colonial India park called The Raj.
The news of elephant abuse come shortly after award-winning filmmaker Carlos Carvalho was killed by a giraffe while shooting a game lodge in South Africa.
Deadline has reached out to HBO for a comment.
Read Thomasson’s letter below.
Dear Mr. Bloys,
I’m writing to you today on behalf of PETA and our more than 6.5 million members and supporters worldwide with concerns over the use of live animals on Westworld—especially wild animals, such as the elephants who appeared in last night’s episode. In light of the egregious cruelty and human health risks as well as the public’s growing opposition to the use of animals for entertainment—and because reports say that there are still plans to use bears this season—we’re urging HBO to commit to not using any wild animals in future episodes or other series.
All elephants used for TV and film are trained through domination and painful techniques, including the use of sharp metal bullhooks and electric prods. Many animals develop abnormal behavior and become unhealthy, depressed, or aggressive because of the mistreatment that they experience. We’ve identified one of the elephants on the show as Tai, who’s owned and exhibited by the notorious outfit Have Trunk Will Travel (HTWT). This eyewitness video footage shows trainers at HTWT abusing elephants, including Tai, during training. The cruel methods that these trainers use are standard practices in the elephant-training industry. Kari Johnson, co-owner of HTWT, acknowledged under oath that her company chains elephants for more than 12 hours a day. Of the four elephants born at HTWT’s facility, all but one died before reaching the age of 4.
Public opposition to the use of animals for entertainment is stronger than ever—evident from the closure of Ringling Bros. circus after 146 years of exploitation and the dozens of travel companies that have pulled elephant rides from their offerings—so it comes as no surprise that we’re receiving complaints from your viewers. And since we sent information when elephants and bears were used in other series such as Silicon Valley, we’re stunned that HBO would allow this.
Captive wild animals also pose a serious threat to the safety of cast and crew. Just last week, director Carlos Carvalho was killed by a giraffe on the set of a TV movie with wildlife experts present. There’s no way to predict the behavior of wild animals, and no amount of training can overcome their natural instincts. Dangerous interactions with captive elephants have resulted in dozens of human deaths or catastrophic injuries—including broken bones, crushed pelvises, collapsed and punctured lungs, degloving injuries, head wounds, and brain injuries.
Considering the realistic and cruelty-free CGI technology that exists today, all wild animals in HBO series should be computer-generated, just the way the tiger was so beautifully done in last night’s episode. May we please hear from you right away to confirm that any plans to use live bears or other wild animals will be canceled and that you will pledge to stop using and exploiting wild animals? Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Manager, Animals in Film & Television