Below is the transcript of the on-camera interview of Kari and Gary Johnson by UT-TV reporter and nationally syndicated talk show host. Roger Hedgecock at the UT San Diego newspaper on March 28, 2014.
Link to accompanied article that appears in the UT San Diego.
Rodger Hedgecock: Rodger Hedgecock here for UT-TV we’re interviewing today the elephant, Tai, and the elephant’s owner and trainers, Kari and Gary [Johnson] - welcome. Nice to see you here.
Gary Johnson: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
RH: They own Have Trunk Will Travel, and you provide a - how many elephants do you have?
Kari Johnson: We have five.
RH: Five of them do a variety of different things like television and movies…
KJ: Movies and commercials, special events, fairs, everything an elephant can do.
GJ: And parades
RH: And parades. Now, hi. (Roger looks over his left shoulder at Tai and notices she is ignoring him as Gary laughs. Then, apparently distracted to be so close to such an enormous animal, loses his train of thought and asks the elephant’s name again.
RH: Who is this again?
KJ: This is Tai. I think she’s board with you already (to which she laughs).
RH: This interview has gotten boring for this elephant, I don’t know about everyone else. Now, this elephant eats how much a day?
KJ: She eats between 150-200 lbs. of food every day, most of that is hay with grains, fruits, vegetables.
KJ: She’s an herbivore.
RH: Herbivore. Okay, very good. So she’s an herbivore, but 150-200 lbs. of food a day. Drinks how much water?
KJ: On a hot day, more than 50 gallons.
RH: More than 50 gallons. How long have you had this animal?
KJ: We’ve had Tai for 38 years.
RH: 38 years. How old is she?
KJ: She’s 45.
RH: And, where’d you get her?
KJ: She came from a park. All of our elephants have come from different places within the United States.
RH: Okay. And she’s an Asian elephant. Which is different from African how?
KJ: The biggest importance is that they are endangered. There are about 500,000 African elephants left in the wild but only 35,000 Asian elephants left in the whole world.
RH: Wow. Including in Asia, but mostly outside.
KJ: The population yes is in Asia.
RH: I bet most of them are outside. Now, she has a curious black thing under her left foot.
KJ: That’s her orthotic.
RH: Wait a minute, the elephant has orthotics?
KJ: Yes she does. So do I, but you can’t see mine.
RH: Why would an elephant need orthotics?
KJ: You know, it’s the neatest thing. We’ve been able to do so much cutting-edge research with elephants, and when we figured out that she would be a lot more comfortable just like we would. We found a really special guy who would be able to make her this orthotic. We’d been working on it for years.
RH: Now, she walks better.
KJ: Yea! She’s so much more comfortable.
RH: Now, this is interesting because you’ve been bringing Tai, I guess, to the fair, the San Diego County Fair, for what, at least…
KJ: 20 something years.
RH: In all that time, the kids get a chance to see the elephant, to ride on the elephant, to learn about the elephant, to actually come in contact with this mammoth animal - it’s a fantastic experience for kids. But I understand that you’re talking about not going. Why?
KJ: It’s a combination of reasons. Part of it is… one really important thing is we have a breeding program, and you know we do all kinds of conservation work with Asian elephants. One thing is that one of our elephants that is getting to the age where she might not be able to conceive anymore, cycles right during that time period. It was a hard decision for us last year. Because every year we don’t do it (breed elephants), they only cycle about three times a year, and if we miss these cycles, we miss everything. Then it’s our own people, a lot of different things that all came together that made it not a great time for us to come to the Fair this year.
RH: You know you have critics.
KJ: Of course.
RH: And the critics are critics of ownership much less the training regimen that goes on. They released a video alleging abuse of the animals including using a hook and using a stun gun and using a… beating the animal and so forth. I wonder if you could respond to that because I watched part of that video and, frankly, I didn’t see a lot… abuse… what I would call abuse, you use a stick to guide them, tap them…
GJ: This is the guide, Roger, that is used in training elephants and when you train an elephant, they’re trained with a physical queue with the guide and also with a verbal queue, a command.
RH: Now, I did see you whap the animal kind of on the leg when there when you wanted her to do something, but it was like that (uses guide to very lightly slap hand).
KJ: But Roger, you have to go back a step or two. The video you saw was so dishonest. It’s not…
RH: How is that?
KJ: That’s not the way elephants are trained. And that’s not the way we train our elephants. They put together a video to make you see what you wanted to see. We do movies and commercials, we know how that stuff is done.
KJ: They have used that video to make amazing amounts of money off our elephants.
RH: In donations, and so forth. Now, you’re involved, and we’ll go back to the part about the breeding and all the rest of the stuff you do for these endangered animals, let’s go back to the training. Is there a role for a stun gun in training?
KJ: No. Of course not.
RH: You don’t use ‘em.
RH: And this stick, what do you call this?
KJ: A guide.
RH: Does have a point. What’s the point for?
GH: To, if you needed to get her over, (demonstrates) “Tai, get over.” – see, you’re not stabbing her - the curved end is to bring her to you, “Tai, come here.” And this you use if she doesn’t understand you or hear you, you revert to the physical queue with the guide. But basically, it’s all verbal with them.
RH: And you’re like they’re mom.
KJ: I feel like it.
RH: Because, you’re talking to these animals and they understand. They hear your voice, and they understand.
KJ: You know how you get attached to all your animals.
GJ: And you know, it’s very important to train animals, to train an elephant. Because, again, if she wasn’t trained, we couldn’t do this orthotic, if she wasn’t trained, we couldn’t do artificial insemination, there is so much we can do, our veterinarians can do, because they are trained. It’s no different than training your dog, training your horse. There are tools to be used – a bridle on a horse- a bit in his mouth, a leash and a collar on a dog. And this is no different. It’s a training tool. Can any of them can be abusive? Of course. Even a leash on your dog can be abusive in the wrong hands.
RH: How long does it take to get Tai or any other animal like this, any other elephant, ready to encounter the public like we are doing today?
GJ: Tai is, like I say, we’ve had her about 38 years, and probably about a year to get them used to, to train them in the basic things. And again, like Tai, she’s been in airplanes, on trucks, on trains...
RH: She’s been in an airplane? What kind of airplane?
KJ: When you’re that big a star, you get flown around.
RH: First class, I take it.
GJ: A 747.
RH: In a 747? There was an elephant in a 747?
GJ: We flew to Thailand for a movie, actually. It was quite an experience.
RH: Oh, that’s fantastic. Now, I want to get back to not being in the fair because that will disappoint a whole bunch of kids who, of course, love to come out and see the animal. Your critics are going to say, you cancelled because they win. Their objections are valid. You guys are going away because of what they said.
KJ: We understand that they’ll say that, it’s not true. The main reason we were there last year was so we wouldn’t “lose” to them. But our lives can’t be dictated by what they might or might not say because they say so many mean and nasty things. We have to do what we think is best, what’s best for our elephants and what’s best for ourselves.
GJ: And unfortunately, let’s just say all the elephants were gone tomorrow, out of all the zoos, out of everything, they would not stop there. They going to go to the next animal, the next animal, because it’s, like you said before, a lot of donations involved.
RH: And I’m concerned because, again, it’s obvious that in the wild, the habitat is shrinking for these animals and if there not somewhere else in a protected situation, they’re just going to go away.
KJ: That’s why the work we do is so important. The conservation work we do. We’re involved in (finding a cure for) EEHV, a virus that kills elephants. We lost a baby elephant to that disease, so it‘s our “pet cause.” But, anything to help elephants. From having orthotics, maybe other people can do use help their elephants. Things that people didn’t even think of. My biggest problem with not being able to go to the fair is – being at the fair is a way for everybody can see an elephant, you don’t have to be rich, you can come and spend your 10 dollars and get on that elephant, you can touch her, you can feel her hair. I mean, it’s amazing to stand there during the day and listen to what people say the first time they see an elephant. And I feel like we’re taking that away. And that was a huge, huge part of…
RH: Of why you would go there. Because the satisfaction you get of exposing people because then when they’re exposed to the animal, they’re going to be much more interested in saving the animal.
KJ: Absolutely! We’ve see it time after time after time, yes.
GJ: Like last year, we had a fundraiser there, donations, people put money in a trunk, all of it went to the International Elephant Foundation to go for the virus (EEHV research).
RH: How much did you raise?
GJ: A little over $5,000. The fair goers put in the trunk over $5,000 and it all went to the International Elephant Foundation to help (find a cure for) the herpes virus (EEHV).
KJ: Just because they wanted to help elephants. They met an elephant.
RH: I bet she’s (Tai) bored with everything we’re talking about. She’s thinking, ‘when is this going to be over.” Does she have emotions like that?
GJ: No. If you’ll notice when she came out of the truck, did you see all the people gather around. She’s not flapped one instant. If a siren – a fire truck – went by, she wouldn't care.
KJ: That oil spot is more interesting.
RH: Again, has to be disappointing not to go to the fair.
KJ: It is.
RH: And I hate to see it happen because it sounds like the opponents are winning.
KJ: I know it does.
RH: But despite that, you’re not going to go.
KJ: Despite that.
RH: And all the kids! Because they’re not going to be able to see the elephant.
GJ: You know, we have followings. People come every year to ride the elephant. There’re families who come every year, it’s their family tradition to get on the elephant, get a picture and they have albums with every year they've ridden.
KJ: And the San Diego County Fair, has been, they've been so supportive of us.
RH: Yea, absolutely.
KJ: You know love the fair. We love them because of the way they treat us, but also because of the opportunities they offer people.