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Monday, April 25, 2011

Water for Elephants is Not Enough: The Disease that is Killing Baby Elephants

Posted by Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
April 25, 2011

Like millions of other movie-goers, I watched Water For Elephants on opening weekend. As remarkable as the story and the acting by Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz and supporting cast was, it was elephant Rosie’s performance that was totally captivating. Her grace and elegance, her ability to collapse, expand and trumpet that 9,000-pound frame was nothing short of breath taking.

Foreground: Tai, who stars as Rosie in "Water for Elephants", and her nephew, JP, who succumbed to a devastating Herpes viral infection in February, 2011. Please consider donating to the research efforts to stomp out this killer. Photo provided by Kari and Gary Johnson, Have Trunk Will Travel.

As Rosie’s veterinarian, Dr. Linda Peddie told me when I interviewed her in February, “Tai (who plays Rosie) is the best-trained and most mature elephant in the world.”
Some people watching the movie were horrified by the images of animal cruelty depicted towards Rosie. However, Gary and Kari Johnson, the husband-and-wife owners and trainers of Tai, were absolutely adamant that nothing harm her, either physically or emotionally. For example, during the depiction of Waltz’s most severe beating of Rosie, the handlers gently moved Tai out of harm’s way. Again Dr. Peddie, “Because Tai has never known mistreatment, she does not view the flailing rampage as anything more than some imbecile beating the air."

Even though there is superb care, veterinary attention, and humane treatment of Tai and the other five elephants at the Johnsons' ranch Have Trunk Will Travel, they have been affected by a devastating and unseen virus that kills elephants worldwide. It is a relatively new viral disease called Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpes Virus (EEHV), and it affects baby elephants in both captivity and in the wild with devastating results. Tai’s “nephew”, a 3½ year-old baby named JP―named in honor of veterinarian Dr. Jim Peddie―died in February, 2011. As is typical of babies with EEHV, the uncontrollable hemorrhaging disease killed JP in less than 48 hours.
JP’s death represented another tragic loss in the elephant world, not only because of the personal anguish at the Have Trunk Will Travel Ranch, but also because it highlights the sad reality that there is as yet neither a cure, nor a vaccine, for this deadly virus.

Research to prevent, manage and treat EEVH is being led by a consortium of veterinarians and biomedical researchers at the following institutions:
·         Smithsonian’s National Zoo
·         Baylor College of Medicine
·         Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
·         Johns Hopkins University
Please consider Donating!
To support research to stomp out the disease that is responsible for the deaths of about 25% of the baby elephants born in the United States in the last three decades, please donate to:

The International Elephant Foundation (IEF), a 501 C (3) non-profit organization.  


  1. This is really sad. From this problem it is possible that we can lost many baby elephants and them communities would have been decreased. They should need enough water.

  2. I just saw the movie a few days ago, and was completely captivated by "Rosie". She was wonderful.

    I didn't know about this disease, so thank you for this post. I hope that through Tai's wonderful performace in the movie, more people can learn about it and help. -Tammy

  3. I was captivated by the book version of Water for Elephant, Rosie stole my heart. The movie has stirred up claims of elephant abuse, I recently read a official statement from Gary and Kari Johnson about Tai’s training, ““We are so disappointed that the wonderful opportunity presented by Tai's role in "Water for Elephants" to raise awareness and funds for elephant conservation and Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV) is being exploited by animal rights extremist groups. ……We are unwavering in our commitment to elephants. We stand by our care and training methods. We are proud of our contributions to elephant welfare and conservation… Rest assured that we will continue to provide Tai and all of our elephants with the love and excellent care they deserve.”
    Dr. Smith would you watch this video of the Johnson’s training Tai and their other elephants and give me your opinion about what is occurring?

  4. Bylagoon. I am equally interested in Dr Smith's professional opinion of the training methods used at the Have Trunk Will Travel ranch. Dr Smith?

  5. On April 28, 2011 The American Veterinarian Medical Association released this video message in response to all the videotaped abuses of animals that keep turning up.
    View video message from AVMA Executive Vice President, Dr. W. Ron DeHaven.
    This message is long overdue, as a society we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to animal abuse. MD’s report human abuse when there is evidences, so why wouldn’t DVM’s report cruel or inhumane treatment of animals.