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Behind the Glitz, Is Anyone Watching Out for Hollywood’s Animal Actors?

Behind the Glitz, Is Anyone Watching Out for Hollywood’s Animal Actors?

Sitting in a darkened movie theater, watching the credits roll at the end of a movie, you’ve probably noticed the American Humane Association statement near the very end that reads, “No animal was harmed during the making of this movie.”

That’s a relief. In the midst of the madness of movie making, thank goodness someone’s keeping an eye on the animals, right?

Wrong. According to a bombshell of an investigative report by The Hollywood Reporter, that credit these days is rather meaningless. According to some of its own employees, the AHA is now reportedly much too “buddy buddy” with the industry it’s supposed to be overseeing.

The result, says reporter Gary Baum, is that AHA isn’t doing its job anymore. The AHA is supposed to be the organization that monitors animal treatment in movie and television productions. It has been doing that job since 1939, when movie makers on the set of Jesse James forced a horse to plunge off a cliff to its death, all in the name of movie realism.

These days, AHA reportedly distorts the ratings it gives to films, refuses to publicly acknowledge incidents harming animals, downplays a host of accidents and incidents, and often won’t properly investigate reports of problems.

Six understandably anonymous AHA employees came forward to talk with The Hollywood Reporter out of concern for entertainment industry animal welfare. Baum reports that these employees have “lost hope in the potential for meaningful reform unless outside pressure is brought to bear.”

After conducting these interviews and reviewing a raft of e-mails, incident logs, audit reports and meeting minutes, Baum appears to have substantiated a real, very distressing problem.

Yes, Animals Were Harmed While Making Your Favorite Movies

Here’s just a sampling of animal accidents and incidents that occurred in the making of movies and television shows in the recent past:

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie) – A reported 27 animals, including sheep and goats, died of dehydration or drowning at the New Zealand farm at which they were being housed during production.
  • Life of Pi (2012, 20th Century Fox movie) – King, the Bengal tiger used in many of the non-CGI animal sequences of this movie, “damn near drowned” according to an internal e-mail from AHA’s Gina Johnson. “I think this goes without saying but DON’T MENTION IT TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY THE OFFICE! I have down-played the f*** out of it,” she wrote.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003, Disney movie) – Failure to take any precautions before setting off underwater explosions caused the deaths of dozens of fish and squids.
  • There Will Be Blood (2007, Paramount Vantage movie) – Days after someone anonymously reported to AHA that horses on set in Texas weren’t getting water and that conditions were “very dry, hot dusty and windy,” several horses died of colic, commonly caused by heatstroke.
  • Failure to Launch (2006, Paramount movie) – A handler dropped a chipmunk, stepped on it and killed it. AHA’s rep noted for this incident: “Lesson learned: Don’t carry the chipmunk on your shoulder.” AHA reportedly later described this incident by saying the chipmunk was in the trainer’s pocket when he tripped and fell.
  • Everlasting Courage (2012, Hallmark cable TV movie) – A horse’s hindquarter was impaled when a “runaway” wagon lost control on set and snapped a crossbar. The horse, named Glass, had to be euthanized due to extreme blood loss. No investigation conducted.
  • Luck (2010-2012, HBO cable series) – Four horses died during the run of this now infamous horse racing show starring Dustin Hoffman. Persistent allegations made the rounds that the horses were too old, underfed and possibly drugged up. The show was finally cancelled a day after a horse reared back, flipped over, hit her head and had to be put down.
  • Eight Below (2006, Disney dog sledding movie) – A trainer punched a dog “harshly” five times in the diaphragm to break up a dog fight.

Despite these terrible and often avoidable occurrences, many of these movies and shows received the coveted “no animal was harmed” credit from the AHA. How is this possible? The employees who were willing to talk say they know why it happens. The AHA’s leadership is starstruck.

dog with hollywood sunglasses, popcorn, and drink

Is the AHA too starstruck to properly protect Hollywood animal actors?

What the Anonymous AHA Staffers Reported

“The general issue at play is that the AHA is funded…by the entertainment industry that it’s covering,” Baum told NPR. “So you have a situation where the industry is bankrolling its regulator.” Remember that the AHA isn’t a governmental entity. It’s accountable only to the entertainment industry, not to the public.

“The AHA does not explain why the films get the ratings they do to hide the fact that they do not give them accurately across the board and that special relationships may be taken into account,” one AHA employee told Baum. “Management pressures postproduction to give good reviews. Even [for] relationships that aren’t special yet [but] might be in the future, and they don’t want to rock the boat.”

“[M]y sources have told me there’s a desire to bend over backwards whenever possible to look at any situation from the industry’s point of view,” Baum told NPR, “to look at incidents as unpreventable accidents, to assign monitors and apply their guidelines in sometimes lax ways; to basically view themselves, the AHA, as a collaborator rather than an independent force, first and foremost, advocating for animal welfare.”

Another employee says: ”Reps are only ‘good’ if they’re not making any waves. Reps who get complaints from a trainer are pulled from a set. The ones who stand up for the animals’ welfare are labeled as troublemakers.”

Baum’s full investigative report is disturbing but necessary reading for anyone concerned about animal welfare issues.

You might be surprised to learn that in deciding whether to award a movie or television show the “no animals were harmed” credit, the AHA does not consider incidents that hurt or endanger animals when filming is on hiatus, when the harm is not “intentional,” or if harm occurs in any off-camera context.

That’s a jarringly loose form of animal protection, AHA. How about a little less rubbing elbows with the Hollywood hoi polloi and a little more looking out for the animals you’re there to protect?

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Photo credit for all images: Thinkstock

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93 comments

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12:00PM PST on Dec 3, 2013

They are making profit by using this animals in the films, the least they can do is to treat them humanly. If AHA is not doing its work they should close. It seems that they only mislead people to think that animals are not harmed and all because of money. What a shame.

4:25AM PST on Dec 3, 2013

hope so

7:01AM PST on Dec 2, 2013

I have read this in a number of different articles - surely it should be investigated if it is true?

3:15AM PST on Dec 2, 2013

Sadly noted

6:50PM PST on Dec 1, 2013

shocking - obviously their rating of 'no animals were harmed' etc. is useless - disgusting, there should be an independant regulatory body set up to protect the animals.

5:11PM PST on Dec 1, 2013

Do you condemn any individual, organisation, government dept. etc. on the strength of what one person tells you?

You must not trust what someone tells you and take it as truthful unless you make an effort to verify it from objective sources. People tell you lies to manipulate you towards their ideology, and exploit your emotions along with your desire to do ‘the right thing’.

Anita W, 8:10pm Nov 30, wrote of her positive experience working with animals and the AHA on 3 movie sets. She has nothing to gain by telling an untruth, and her report makes a great deal more sense than the article.

The majority of film directors and producers are motivated by artistic expression and providing top entertainment, not greed. Studios and distributors are the ones too focused on money, however this should have no impact on the handling or treatment of animals on movie sets.

Are the AHA too focused on money? I don’t know, but I’m not prepared to condemn them on unsubstantiated, sensational claims. I know there are CEOs of many animal welfare organizations who make a killing out of charity, but the volunteers of those organizations work damn hard and take their role seriously. Paid staff and perhaps some volunteers, not the CEOs, would be present on the set, and they would have nothing to lose reporting animal abuse or neglect.

The claims of ‘it’s all because of money’ are emotional and illogical.

11:41AM PST on Dec 1, 2013

money, money, money !!!! Shame on the AHA !!!

11:16AM PST on Dec 1, 2013

There must be some human beings working in the movie industry who have a heart, but for sure can they make the right decision when it comes to the choice between money and a defenceless, innocent creature who never, ever, ever would harm themselves???

6:29AM PST on Dec 1, 2013

Rien ne pourra arrêter l'Homme de faire de l'argent. L'exploitation des animaux en fait partie.

5:58AM PST on Dec 1, 2013

Why is it always about money?? It makes me sick when humans exploit such sentient creatures for profit. Surely, these animals are worth more than just money!! Do they not deserve a home? An owner that will love them? Someone to REALLY watch out for them!! C'mon people, let's get our priorities straight!!!!

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