Sharks are highly sensitive animals, but that didn’t stop Kmart from deciding that one really needed to be featured in a recent commercial, so they had a white-tipped shark flown from the East Coast to California, where the majestic animal was placed in an above-ground swimming pool in Van Nuys. By the end of a day of filming, the shark was in distress, and after emergency treatment with oxygen and adrenaline, it was rushed to medical care, but it was too late.
The case is generating a firestorm of commentary about the use of animals in film and television, and it highlights the dangers of allowing the desire for entertainment to override the rights of animals. With the help of organizations like the American Humane Association, Hollywood is supposed to be making sets safer for animals, and evaluating whether animals are really needed at all, though, so what happened here?
A representative from the American Humane Association actually was on set during filming, and says filming stopped when the animal started to show signs of medical distress such as rolling and slowing down. The representative asked for immediate medical treatment to stabilize the shark for transport to receive more aggressive care, following procedures intended to safeguard animals. However, it doesn’t appear that the representative questioned the use of an above-ground pool, although a senior advisor for the AHA says the pool contained enough water for the shark’s needs.
Notably, the AHA’s mandate covers animals on set, but not during transport. Transporting a shark across such a great distance isn’t a good idea for the animal’s health and safety, because sharks are easily stressed and sensitive to environmental stimuli like noises and vibrations. The AHA was notified only a day before filming, which meant it had no chance to comment on the original source of the shark and the transportation method, and had to focus on keeping the animal safe on set. With more funding, and more aggressive policies, that could change, and the ADA’s activities could include transportation too, to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.
Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which is unilaterally opposed to the use of animals in film and television production, issued a statement claiming whistleblowers on set said the shark was in obvious distress for some time before medical intervention was provided. If this is the case, the AHA monitor failed at a key component of the work, which involves stepping in to protect animal actors as soon as they’re showing signs of emotional or physical stress.
This case highlights the need for tighter regulations when it comes to transporting animals across state lines, particularly for film and television production, and it illustrates that while Hollywood may be trying to make conditions safer for animals, it still hasn’t succeeded. Just last year, production on the TV show Luck was stopped after three horses died during filming, a tragedy illustrating that even with tight on-set protections, there are dangers for animals in the studio environment, which can be crowded, chaotic, hot, and filled with stimuli.
That goes double for wild animals, who are not socialized with humans and can’t handle the same kinds of stresses domestic animals like dogs, horses and cats do. Sharks belong in the wild, not above-ground swimming pools, and it’s a shame this shark had to pay the ultimate price to remind people of that.
Photo credit: Steve Garner