In light of Hollywood’s once a year love-fest (the Oscars), I started considering who I would nominate for best animal actors of the year. However, as I was doing my research to get some ideas, I kept uncovering the egregious ways in which animals have been mistreated on set.
Here are five of the worst cases of animal abuse on film shoots:
1. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (2012)
As Care2 reported here, all is not well in Middle-Earth. Specifically, animal handlers involved in the making of the new Hobbit film have blamed the production company for the death of 27 animals. Peter Jackson, the director, has flatly denied all charges, but four wranglers accuse producers of failing to do enough to prevent the deaths of three horses, six goats, six sheep and a dozen chickens; the creatures all died as a result of poor conditions at a farm close to Wellington, New Zealand, where the trilogy was filmed.
The deaths occurred off-set, due to what animal wranglers on the film dubbed “death traps” (bluffs, sinkholes and broken fences) on this ranch. Reportedly, chickens were mauled by dogs, a horse fell over a bluff, a pony broke his back, and goats and sheep contracted worms.
2. “Water for Elephants” (2011)
This is a romantic drama set in a 1930s animal circus in the USA, starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, although the real star of the movie is a 42-year-old Asian elephant Tai, who plays Rosie. In the film Rosie is brutally attacked by the circus owner who beats her with a bull hook. But the producers, stars and trainers initially insisted that Tai was trained with kindness, marshmallows and positive reinforcement.
However, secret video footage released by Animal Defenders International (ADI) shows Tai being electric shocked and beaten during training to make her perform tricks that she later went on to perform in the film. Click here to watch the video.
3. “Oldboy” (2003)
“When it comes to gut-wrenchingly violent cinema, the Koreans are going further than anyone. And doing it better, too,” read The Guardian’s review of this film, which focuses on a man who spent 15 years in prison without explanation and now seeks revenge on those who put him there.
The script for this Korean thriller required the protagonist to eat a live octopus after enduring those 15 years in captivity. Even worse, since the scene had to be shot four times, star Choi Min-sik ate four live octopi. Min-sik, a dedicated Buddhist, reportedly said a prayer for each octopus, and apologized before shooting. Note: Spike Lee has directed a re-make of this film, to be released later this year. We’ll see how he handles the octopus issue.
4. “Heaven’s Gate” (1980)
Michael Cimino’ directed this film, which turned out to be a major flop. Set in 1890s Wyoming, the movie depicts Sheriff James Averill and his attempts to protect immigrant farmers from wealthy cattle interests. In a different arena, he also clashes with a hired gun, Nathan Champion, over the woman they both love, Ella Watson. The action culminates in a brutal battle, which was hard for the actors, but according to the American Humane Association (AHA), the movie was even more deadly for the animals involved.
The AHA was denied permission to go on set, but they accused the production of killing at least four horses, bleeding other horses from the neck, disemboweling cows, accidentally blowing up a horse and its rider with dynamite (the rider survived), staging actual cockfights, and decapitating a chicken.
5. “Jesse James” (1939)
This is definitely not a great film, but it is important because it led to the establishment of the first supervision and regulation of the use of animals in movies. In the film two blindfolded horses are tricked into running off a 75-foot cliff during production. The ruse was temporarily disguised by painting eyes on the horses’ blinders. When word got out, the public outcry was so widespread that in 1940 the Hays Office, which governed appropriate film content at the time, partnered with the American Humane Association to ban animal cruelty on film.
That’s where the “No Animals Were Harmed”® disclaimer at the end of movies comes from. The American Humane Association’s Los Angeles-based Film & TV Unit is the film and television industry’s only officially-sanctioned animal monitoring program.
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