Exclusive interview: True Blood’s Carolyn Hennesy on why she is helping to save elephants

Celebrities / January 10, 2013

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On the small screen she is known for appearing on HBO’s True Blood, General Hospital (for which she was nominated for a Daytime Emmy) and Cougar Town“, but Carolyn Hennesy’s greatest role to date is that of saving elephants.

Late least year, she traveled to Thailand in a bid to raise awareness that the trend of  “bullhooking” needs to stop. [CNN reports that a bullhook, also known as an ankus and/or elephant hook, is a highly abusive item used to train and control elephants; A bullhook is usually a long piece of wood with a sharp and deadly hook at the end of it that stabs into an elephants skin and flesh to cause pain to force them to do as their told.]

Here Carolyn shares with us her passion for stopping this atrocious act against elephants and provides information on how we can all help….

Celebzter: How did you first come across “bullhooking”?

Carolyn: Several years ago, a fan sent me a video via my website which depicted abusive training techniques practiced by a well-known circus which included the bullhook.  I immediately did as the fan wished and called for a boycott of their traveling show.  Dr. Grey Stafford, curator for the Wildlife World Zoo in Phoenix, AZ and a PRT advocate/trainer reached out to discuss the issue further with me.  While there had been some progress made in the training program for the particular circus in question, I came to know that the use of the ankus (bullhook) was and is still pervasive throughout the world.  The connection and dialogue that has resulted from his outreach has been the source of my education into the immensely complex world of animal training in general and elephants in specific.

Celebzter: When did you decide to jump into action and spread the message that what was occurring is wrong?

Carolyn: Without knowing it, my initial response to Grey Stafford’s letter was my jump into the fray.  I only want to speak, on any issue, if and when I have as many of the facts as possible.  After my first conversation with him, I knew I had found yet another path.  It’s been a remarkable and heartbreaking education.

Celebzter: It seems it is necessary to educate the public on PRT… What do we all need to know?

Carolyn: Fortunately, the documentary now being completed, “Elephant In The Room,” will do exactly that for the viewing public, but the simple facts are these:

Positive Reinforcement Training (PRT) can be used with any animal (and human) and has had tremendous success with the larger land and marine mammals.  It mandates that no harm (physical, mental or psychological) come to the animal whatsoever.  It works on conditioning with edible treats, words of praise and affection and/or loving contact i.e. gentle strokes, petting, or playing.  With PRT and just a small amount of patience, a trainer would have an animal that would literally do anything for them and joyfully so.  In short, it gives animals choices and control over their environment, is based on cooperation not coercion, leads to greater behavior precision e.g., voluntary blood sampling, is fun for animals and caregivers, and may help us humans preserve more species from extinction.  It’s just the right thing to do.

Now…there are some out there who will say “That’s great, but an animal should never be used for entertainment and for profit from the viewing public.”  I couldn’t agree more. In a perfect world; the world of four thousand years ago before we started using and abusing animals of every kind to do our will.  But in this world, the real world, the odds are infinitesimally small that you will ever get the Thai people to give up the profit-making ventures of the elephant camps.  Nor is it likely you will get Ringling Bros. to give up elephants in the circus.  I hope I’m proved wrong in these scenarios and others of their ilk, but that’s another issue.  But if we are going to have these animals, then we must be responsible and respectful and the point ofPRT is that you can get exactly the same result out of any animal that you will get with abusive behavior, only you now have an animal that wants to participate.  By switching to PRT, an elephant camp show would be viewed, by an elephant, not as “I have to work or I’ll be beaten,” but as “Great!  I get to go play!”

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Celebzter: Can you tell us what you witnessed on your recent travels to Southeast Asia?


Low Points:

Mahouts on top of elephants, bullhooks in hand, hitting the animals even when they weren’t doing anything wrong, per se. Simply when the elephant was moving along a pathway or across a river…as if to continually reinforce the idea of dominance and the threat of pain.

Elephants carrying riders walking on asphalt roads; particularly harmful to elephant feet.  Cords, binding the riding seats to the elephants, cutting into the animals’ flesh.

Elephants being herded from the performance ring back onto hard cement slabs, then tethered to a ring with a chain only six feet in length. Almost immediately, the elephants would begin swaying or rocking back and forth, signaling the onset of severe psychological problems.

Mothers and babies chained together in cramped pens.

An elephant who’d been so traumatized at the death of her infant that she’d refused to work in a logging camp.  She had then been blinded in one eye by a slingshot and in the other by a bullhook.  She now lives in an elephant sanctuary…as happy a life as it can be.

An elephant, “Meadow,” who had several sets of leg bones crushed in logging and breeding disasters.  She was then set to work as a street elephant with a “trainer” who begged for money with his “poor elephant.”  Meadow has since been rescued and is living in a sanctuary.

High Points:

The Elephant Nature Park and it’s founder, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert…a force of nature if ever there was one.  Two hundred plus acres of freedom for the worst of the abused elephants.  Family units, caring trainers, gentle patrons, plentiful food and, yes, a river runs through it; bathing an elephant is one of world’s great joys.

The Wildlife Alliance sanctuary run by Nick Marx just outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  Six elephants from dire straits now experiencing love and caring, including one elephant whose foot had to be amputated due to a snare now walking about on a prosthetic.  Genius.  There is happiness here.

Probably the greatest miracle I witnessed first hand was this: mahouts who had been brought up to deal with elephants in the traditional way, with the bullhook, now complete converts to PRT.  Lek Chailert insisted on PRT for anyone who was to work in her sanctuary.  The mahouts resisted at first, not only this slip of a woman instructing them, but the core idea that PRT was even viable.  To hear of and see their collective turnabout gives me hope for the rest of the planet.

Celebzter: Have you always had a love of elephants? And why do you have such affection to them?

Carolyn: I have always liked elephants a great deal…but hadn’t come to know them until several years ago when Dr. Stafford invited me to Busch Gardens in Tampa to see the elephant enclosure and the wondrous workings of Otto Fad and his staff.  I got up close and personal and it was truly life changing.  More importantly, it changed my perspective.  These are glorious creatures and their souls are present in their eyes if you take the time to look.  Their desire not only to know us, but to please us is as large as they are.  And elephant is loyal and oh-so smart, whimsical, tenacious…and curious.  To have an elephant trunk move over your face, head and body, seeking answers to who you are…are you kind?…are you trustworthy?…that’s a magical thing.


Celebzter: With so many causes out there and so many wrongdoings, what was it about this cause that inspired you to do whatever was needed as a force for a change?

Carolyn: Very simple:  I looked into the eye of an elephant.  That flipped the “toggle switch” for me.  The intellect, the soul, the grace, the magnanimity…all so purely present in a being that has no innate wish to harm us (humans…unless threatened, unless their migration pathways and watering holes are encroached upon, of course) and has no voice.  It is my belief that if abuses to the largest land mammal can cease, then that mindset of “no harm” will have a trickle down effect and permeate the cause of animal abuse in general.

Celebzter: How can people get involved and help?


Check out the amazing websites and donate to one or both of the following;

Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, Founder and Director

Elephant Nature Park

1 Ratmakka Rd, Prasing, Muang

Chiang Mai 50200 Thailand



Nick Marx

Director, Wildlife Rescue and Care Programmes


Direct Protection to Forests and Wildlife

House 51, Street 352

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Tel: (+855) 23 211 604

Fax: (+855) 23 211 672

Mobile: (+855) 12 766 792

Donors should specify that all monies go to the Care for Rescued Wildlife programs.

Or…if you really want to make a mark, take the time and write a letter.  Google any circus coming into your area and let them know that YOU know about abusive training and do they practice this as a training method?  Let your voice be heard.  If you get a boilerplate response, write again.  Tell them that you now know about PRT and that’s the only form of training you’ll support.  Write the Thai, Cambodian, Indian and Indonesian governments and tourist bureaus.  Or any of the many African governments.  Tell them you now know about PRT and will only support their exports if PRT is adopted as the standard method of training at any performing camp.

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Melissa Myers
Melissa Myers has worked as an entertainment journalist for ten years, both in London and New York. She now focuses much of her time helping bring inspiring stories to light and, additionally, her project "Makeover with Meaning," which seeks to add a sprinkle of happiness into the lives of those who need it most.

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