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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Water for Elephants: Meet the Veterinarians

Posted February 26, 2011
Author Dr. Donald F. Smith, Cornell University

When the movie, Water for Elephants, opens on April 22nd, all eyes will be on Tai, the 42-year-old Asian elephant who plays the lead role of "Rosie". Veterinarian Dr. Linda Reeve Peddie considers "Rosie" the best-trained and most mature elephant in the world.  Linda and her husband, Dr. James Peddie, have jointly managed the health care of "Rosie" and her herd mates at the Johnson ranch, "Have Trunk Will Travel", since the early 1990s.
Dr. Linda Reeve Peddie and Dr. James Peddie, Cornell 1965,
Veterinarians to the Asian elephant, Tai,
who stars as "Rosie" in movie, Water for Elephants.
Interview and photo by the author.
The Water for Elephants story involves a Depression-era veterinary student at Cornell University whose parents are tragically killed just before he is scheduled to sit for his final examinations. The despondent Jacob Jankowski bolts from Cornell and joins the circus. Coincidentally, Drs. Peddie also received their veterinary education at Cornell, graduating together in the Class of 1965, more than three decades after mythical Jacob.

Linda and Jim have taken care of the elephants for Gary and Kari Johnson for almost two decades. The array of medical and surgical challenges, as well as the sheer size and complexity of their six elephants requires extensive medical knowledge, creativity, perseverance, and a gentle touch. Tai, who plays the role of "Rosie" in the movie, is in marvelously good health thanks in large part to their veterinary care.  

During the creation of the Disney movie, Operation Dumbo Drop, in 1994, Tai developed gastroenteritis during filming in Asia. She lost her appetite and dropped a significant amount of weight. The Peddie’s wisely arranged for a 747 jumbo jet to airlift her favorite Southern California oat hay to the set in Thailand. It was an immediate success, and Tai's appetite resumed miraculously.  Though some would call it a ‘Jumbo for Dumbo’, Jim simply refers to it as the most expensive load of hay in history.

Drs. Peddie are regular visitors to the Johnson ranch and have examined and treated Tai and her herd mates numerous times. That familiarity, however, does not afford them casual access to the elephants. The Peddie’s would never approach Tai without being accompanied by one of the Johnson trainers. Elephants form a matriarchal society, explained Linda, and in Tai’s case, Gary Johnson is the head matriarch. A trusted trainer must always facilitate interaction with a non-herd member such as one of us.

How is actress Reese Witherspoon viewed by Tai? Reese and the others are simply props for "Rosie", who views herself as the lead actress, Jim said. As long as the human stars know their place in the pachyderm pecking order, everything proceeds smoothly.

What about the scenes depicting cruelty to "Rosie"? The Johnson’s were absolutely adamant that nothing harm Tai, either emotionally or physically. During trainer August Rosenbluth’s rampage where he portrays brutal treatment of Rosie, the handlers gently move Tai backwards and out of harm’s way, and August simply strikes the air next to her body. Because Tai has never known mistreatment, Linda told me, she does not view the flailing as anything more than some imbecile beating the air.

In a similar manner, the ugly traumatic wounds that the movie depicts on Rosie are just convincingly-fashioned latex molds that are perfectly affixed to her flawless hide.

Creating a movie of this nature requires a unique blend of almost mystical proportions. To more fully appreciate these numinous qualities requires an understanding of the longstanding bonds that form between animals and humans working with mutual respect at every level.

Veterinarians Linda and Jim Peddie are an integral part of that matrix. I think that fellow Cornellian, Jacob Jankowski, would be proud.

Addendum: In a future blog, I shall describe some of the medical problems that Drs. Peddie face in their care of elephants. The most serious challenge to young Asian elephants is a Herpes virus that causes acute death in calves. A research consortium involving clinicians and scientists at Cornell, Johns Hopkins, the National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, and Baylor College of Medicine attempts to understand this devastating disease and create a vaccine for its control.

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