Animals Were Harmed
A Hollywood Reporter investigation reveals disturbing account after account of injury, death and cover-up on huge Hollywood productions from 'Life of Pi' to 'The Hobbit' as the American Human Association, charged with monitoring, turns a blind eye.
“Last week we almost f–ing killed King in the water tank,” American Humane Association monitor Gina Johnson confided in an email to a colleague on April 7, 2011, about the star tiger in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. While many scenes featuring “Richard Parker,” the Bengal tiger who shares a lifeboat with a boy lost at sea, were created using CGI technology, King, very much a real animal, was employed when the digital version wouldn’t suffice. “This one take with him just went really bad and he got lost trying to swim to the side,” Johnson wrote. “Damn near drowned.”
King’s trainer eventually snagged him with a catch rope and dragged him to one side of the tank, where he scrambled out to safety. “I think this goes without saying but DON’T MENTION IT TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY THE OFFICE!” Johnson continued in the email, obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. “I have downplayed the f– out of it.”
As a representative of the American Humane Association — the grantor of the familiar “No Animals Were Harmed” trademark accreditation seen at the end of film and TV credits — it was Johnson’s job to monitor the welfare of the animals used in the production filmed in Taiwan. What’s more, Johnson had a secret: She was intimately involved with a high-ranking production exec on Pi. (AHA’s management subsequently became aware of both the relationship and her email about the tiger incident, which others involved with the production have described in far less dire terms.) Still, Pi, which went on to earn four Oscars and $609 million in global box office, was awarded the “No Animals Were Harmed” credit.
A year later, during the filming of another blockbuster, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 27 animals reportedly perished, including sheep and goats that died from dehydration and exhaustion or from drowning in water-filled gullies, during a hiatus in filming at an unmonitored New Zealand farm where they were being housed and trained. A trainer, John Smythe, tells THR that AHA’s management, which assigned a representative to the production, resisted investigating when he brought the issue to its attention in August 2012. First, according to an email Smythe shared with THR, an AHA official told him the lack of physical evidence would make it difficult to investigate. When he replied that he had buried the animals himself and knew their location, the official then told him that because the deaths had taken place during the hiatus, the AHA had no jurisdiction. The AHA eventually bestowed a carefully worded credit that noted it “monitored all of the significant animal action. No animals were harmed during such action.”
A THR investigation has found that, unbeknownst to the public, these incidents on Hollywood’s most prominent productions are but two of the troubling cases of animal injury and death that directly call into question the 136-year-old Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit’s assertion that “No Animals Were Harmed” on productions it monitors. Alarmingly, it turns out that audiences reassured by the organization’s famous disclaimer should not necessarily assume it is true. In fact, the AHA has awarded its “No Animals Were Harmed” credit to films and TV shows on which animals were injured during production. It justifies this on the grounds that the animals weren’t intentionally harmed or the incidents occurred while cameras weren’t rolling.
The full scope of animal injuries and deaths in entertainment productions cannot be known. But in multiple cases examined by THR, the AHA has not lived up to its professed role as stalwart defenders of animals — who, unlike their human counterparts, didn’t themselves sign up for such work. While the four horse deaths on HBO’s Luck made headlines last year, there are many extraordinary incidents that never bubble up to make news.
A Husky dog was punched repeatedly in its diaphragm on Disney’s 2006 Antarctic sledding movie Eight Below, starring Paul Walker, and a chipmunk was fatally squashed in Paramount’s 2006 Matthew McConaughey-Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy Failure to Launch. In 2003, the AHA chose not to publicly speak of the dozens of dead fish and squid that washed up on shore over four days during the filming of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Crewmembers had taken no precautions to protect marine life when they set off special-effects explosions in the ocean, according to the AHA rep on set.
And the list goes on: An elderly giraffe died on Sony’s 2011 Zookeeper set and dogs suffering from bloat and cancer died during the production of New Regency’s Marmaduke and The Weinstein Co.’s Our Idiot Brother, respectively (an AHA spokesman confirms the dogs had bloat and says the cancer “was not work-related”). In March, a 5-foot-long shark died after being placed in a small inflatable pool during a Kmart commercial shoot in Van Nuys.
All of these productions had AHA monitors on set.
“It’s fascinating and ironic: From being the protectors of animals they’ve become complicit to animal cruelty,” says Bob Ferber, a veteran L.A. City Attorney’s office prosecutor who founded and supervised its Animal Protection Unit until retiring in March.
Ferber is not surprised by the allegation that the AHA is failing to adequately monitor many productions. When he attempted in 2005 to investigate two horse deaths during production of Fox’s Flicka (based on the beloved children’s novel), he says the AHA’s Film & TV Unit management insisted the deaths on the sets in the Simi and San Fernando valleys were unpreventable accidents. When he dispatched L.A. Animal Control officers to talk to the AHA, “They told animal control to f– themselves,” he says. “This is worse than doing nothing. This is like a cop not just ignoring a crime but helping cover it up.”
The end credit AHA ultimately bestowed on Flicka reads, without elaboration, “American Humane Association monitored the animal action.”
Once a distinctly outsider entity, which had to fight for its right to independently monitor productions in the first place, today the AHA has transformed itself into an entrenched industry insider. The organization undeniably has improved the care and safety of animals used in Hollywood. But interviews with six AHA employees and an extensive review of internal AHA documents, including incident logs, emails, meeting minutes, audit assessments and more, strongly suggest that the organization’s fundamental work — protecting animals through credibly neutral on-set oversight — today is inadequate. These employees allege, and available AHA internal evidence supports their claims, that the organization distorts its film ratings, downplays or fails to publicly acknowledge harmful incidents and sometimes doesn’t seriously pursue investigations. The AHA staffers agreed to speak because they say they have lost hope in the potential for meaningful reform unless outside pressure is brought to bear. (They all have insisted on maintaining their anonymity for fear of retribution.)
More recently, the organization — whose other nationwide animal efforts range from rescue and shelter services following large-scale disasters to a cage-free certification program for meat, poultry, egg and dairy producers — has faced conflicts of interest stemming from its desire to be a part of the industry it’s meant to regulate.
Exhibit A: On Oct. 1, 2011, the Hallmark Channel premiered Love’s Everlasting Courage, a TV movie about pioneer-era America that was monitored by the AHA. That same evening, the AHA presented its inaugural Hero Dog Awards, attended by the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Betty White and Hayden Panettiere, at the Beverly Hilton. Hallmark subsequently broadcast the Hero Dog Awards gala, just as it’s done each year since. It was a natural fit — after all, the network’s head, Crown Media CEO Bill Abbott, sat on the AHA’s Film & TV Unit advisory board (he would join the AHA’s full national board just after the 2011 Hero Dog Awards event).
The symbiotic relationship between the two organizations is important in light of an incident that occurred June 9, 2010, during the filming of Courage. That day, a horse named Glass — known for his gentle demeanor, one blue eye and a distinctive white blaze of mane set against a shimmering black coat — was fatally injured when a “runaway” wagon really did lose control and the carriage’s crossbar broke (think of a pencil snapping), impaling the animal’s left hindquarter. “He then went into shock from extreme blood loss and the vet decided it would be more humane to euthanize him than allow him to suffer,” according to an internal AHA report.
Although AHA employees tell THR there was reason to suspect that negligence played some role — if the scene had been set up differently, they say, Glass and other horses likely would not have been in a position to be injured in an accident — the AHA did not investigate. According to an AHA statement given to THR, the driver didn’t lose control, and an investigation wasn’t necessary. “We were present, witnessed the entire day of shooting and had the veterinary report. … It was a miscalculation, not an act of negligence.” (The film did not receive an AHA end credit, but that is not unusual for a television production.)
Abbott, in an interview with THR, adds, “We looked at it and found that we had a clear conscience. … We don’t think an outside investigation would have revealed anything differently.” As to whether his close relationship with the AHA creates a conflict of interest, he says, “I can understand how that would raise an eyebrow. But it’s almost like when a coach has a son on the team and that coach is more difficult on that son than other people.”
Charges of improper coziness between the AHA and the entertainment business have been raised before. The arrangement by which the Film & TV Unit’s budget has been mostly financed — through what is currently a $2.4 million grant administered by two trade groups, the recently merged SAG-AFTRA actors’ union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers via its shared Industry Advancement and Cooperative Fund — long has been criticized for the inherent conflict of interest present in Hollywood bankrolling its regulator. (The IACF is endowed as part of the producers’ obligation to the actors’ union. For more on the AHA and the IACF, see sidebar.)
This unique compact, in which a nonprofit has taken on the role of a regulator of industry in lieu of more traditional, government oversight — and therefore is not subject to public disclosure laws, allowing its work to mostly remain shrouded in secrecy — means the AHA is accountable only to Hollywood itself.
Dr. S. Kwane Stewart, a veterinarian who took over as the national director of the AHA’s “No Animals Were Harmed” program in April, defends the arrangement. “This whole idea that we’re cozy with the industry — it’s simply not the case,” he tells THR. “We first and foremost want to keep the animals safe.” Nevertheless, he adds, “we need to keep in mind that [the producers and directors of productions the AHA monitors] want to arrive at their vision as well.” For example, he says, consider the unique challenges posed by working with horses. “These are huge animals, with blazing speed, on stilts. If you want to avoid incidents, keep them in the stables entirely.”
In fact, it was after the deaths of four horses during the production of HBO’s now-canceled horse-racing drama series Luck in 2010-2012 that new complaints from animal-rights activists and on-set whistle-blowers emerged about the effectiveness of the AHA and its often close relationship to the industry (see sidebar for the full story on what happened on Luck).
In January, Barbara Casey, the Studio City-based Film & TV Unit’s former head of production, sued the AHA, HBO and Stewart Productions (not affiliated with Dr. Stewart) in L.A. Superior Court for wrongful termination stemming from the fallout over the horse deaths. She alleges that she was informed of ongoing mistreatment of animals on the Luck set and aggressively advocated for safer conduct, which held up the production schedule. As a result, Luck‘s makers “exercised their political muscle and influence with AHA,” she says, and her employer subsequently fired her under pressure.
Casey alleges that her dismissal is part of a larger pattern in which the organization “kowtows” to the industry, a claim echoed by AHA employees to whom THR has spoken. In her court filings, Casey enumerates repeated incidents of appeasement and collusion. These range from the death of a cow on HBO’s Temple Grandin and the incident involving King the tiger on Life of Pi to the 27 animal fatalities during the production of The Hobbit.
Casey also alleges in her filing that “in order to protect Steven Spielberg, one of the most notable and influential persons in the history of film, and because of the volume of press and other publicity this film garnered, AHA agreed to cover up the death of [a] horse [on War Horse] and to give the 2011 film its ‘No Animals Were Harmed’ end credit.”
In its response to Casey’s allegations, the AHA says, “We absolutely and categorically deny the sensationalist, inflammatory, misleading and untrue allegations.” It adds, “We look forward to vigorously defending ourselves through the proper legal channels.” A hearing in the case is scheduled for March 2014.
An HBO spokeswoman declined to answer questions about Luck, referring THR to previously issued statements, including, “From the very outset of the project, the safety of the animals was of paramount concern to us. Assertions of lax attitudes or negligence could not be further from the truth.”
Animal cruelty has been a fact of life on productions since the inception of Hollywood. (Nearly 100 horses died during the shooting of 1959’s Ben-Hur alone.) Action-adventure films and Westerns were known to treat animals harshly in their attempts to attain verisimilitude long before the advent of CGI. As early as 1939, after a horse was forced onto a slippery platform, tilted to ensure it would plummet 70 feet off a cliff to its death, during the shooting of Jesse James, the Hays Office, typically busy with other forms of morality policing, invited the AHA (not to be confused with the Humane Society of the United States) to be present on sets.
In 1980, following public outcry over animal mistreatment on Heaven’s Gate, which practiced a ghastly form of gritty realism that included real cockfights and disemboweled cows, that arrangement was more formally ratified by a clause in the collective bargaining agreement between the actors’ guild and the producers’ association. (AHA monitors were barred at gunpoint from the Heaven’s Gate set in Montana’s Glacier National Park.)
The organization subsequently was authorized to review scripts and show up on any SAG set at any time. Perhaps more important, its monitors, who are licensed as law enforcement officers, could write citations and even — solely within the state of California — make arrests. Notably, neither power has been exercised in the AHA’s Hollywood history, which spans at least 35,000 productions since 1980.
The AHA is quick to point out, in the widely circulated “Protecting Your Ass From Harm” AHA industry pamphlet about its work, that the “No Animals Were Harmed” credit serves as an effective shield against potentially damaging PR attacks from animal rights’ groups — the AHA positions itself as the far more moderate bulwark to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which believes CGI should entirely replace real animals — as well as being a now-necessary disclaimer required by many distributors and networks prior to release or airing.
The AHA’s jurisdiction is broad but far from complete. American productions working outside a union agreement or shooting internationally are charged a contractual fee of $80 per hour for a monitor, not including travel expenses. But, according to internal AHA Film & TV Unit advisory board meeting minutes from 2010 reviewed by THR, many productions simply decline to participate.
Meanwhile, only about 50 percent of animal action is monitored domestically, according to Film & TV Unit senior adviser Karen Rosa. The gap is due to a variety of factors, from nonunion productions that opt out to late notifications, distant locations, fluctuating shooting schedules and inexperienced crewmembers who either don’t know or — in certain cases — don’t want to ask for monitoring in the first place. In addition, because of the increase in movie and television production in recent years, the AHA sometimes doesn’t have enough safety representatives to handle requested coverage, resulting in brief visits by monitors, or even none at all.
“Reps get sent to multiple sets in a day, which means we can check off a set as ‘covered’ even though we only stayed there for five minutes,” says one staffer, who notes that limited personnel resources are allocated toward the riskiest scenes. “I feel that, more and more, this is done not to make sure we at least see the trainers and animals and make sure that it’s not a horrible situation, but rather to keep the numbers up and make it look like we are monitoring more than we actually are.”
The AHA frequently touts a 99.98 percent safety rating — meaning, almost 100 percent of the animals they monitor are not harmed. But the AHA’s internal critics insist the number is farcical, with no real statistical grounding. They claim the aggregate overall ratio is purposefully inflated by the inclusion of high volumes of impossible-to-count insects — “Think of days where you’re using, say, 10,000 worms, 10,000 cockroaches, 50,000 ants, 25,000 beetles,” explains one employee — while the number of injuries or deaths is undercounted because the organization doesn’t account for those that occur while an animal is in transit or at a holding facility (as opposed to specifically on set). Adds a colleague: “It’s a total B.S. number made up for PR purposes.”
In response, Rosa says that the score is based on an estimated number of animals monitored by the organization over five years versus the number of known incidents. “I did it by incident, not necessarily by number of animals. So when you say insects, well, I did count fish …” she says. “We do about 100,000 animals a year — and that’s low because sometimes there’s a herd of cattle and a flock of birds. So we can only estimate.”
The AHA’s willingness to please the industry can begin even before shooting starts, with what’s described as a politicized process of scheduling and placing its monitors on sets. Employees claim (and Casey’s suit alleges) that productions with strong ties to the organization often are able to successfully request which safety reps will enforce their sets. (Rosa denies this. “We never make those kinds of promises,” she says. We’re not resourced well enough to make those kinds of promises.”)
Why? “Reps are only ‘good’ if they’re not making any waves,” explains one employee. “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.” Adds another: “Management calls reps who complain to management [about issues on set] ‘negative.’ Reps who have a professional conflict with trainers or production are ‘not being collaborative.’ ” (In her legal filings, Casey makes similar allegations.)
The conflict of interest is worsened by the fact that some monitors are known to maintain close friendships with their industry counterparts, particularly the animal trainers whom they most closely shadow on set. One AHA rep dog-sits for trainers. Others party with them. (Many monitors and trainers were classmates at the Moorpark College Exotic Animal Training and Management Program, north of Thousand Oaks.) The most extreme examples involve a handful of AHA reps who, like Gina Johnson, according to sources, have engaged in intimate relationships with those whose sets they oversee. Stewart says that the AHA “became aware of [the relationship]” after the fact.
As for Johnson’s dramatic email about the tiger incident, “I think Gina in her expression, as she would probably tell anybody, probably overreacted,” Stewart says. “Was it a close call? What is indisputable was that no harm came to King. Could you argue he had a moment? But he continued to work.” Fox also says the incident wasn’t serious. “The tiger, King, was never harmed and did not ‘nearly drown’ during the production,” says a spokesman. “We take on-set safety very seriously and take every precaution necessary to ensure that no one — animal or human — is harmed during the production of our films.”
As to whether the AHA should implement a recusal policy when reps become too close to their subjects, Stewart says, “Your question is a fair question. The objectivity should be taken into consideration.”
AHA’s internal critics also express concern over the recently departed communications chief Jone Bouman’s policy of securing marketing and fundraising arrangements with animal-oriented films, from Paramount’s Hotel for Dogs (2009) to Disney’s War Horse, before shooting is completed. Initiatives can range widely. On Fox’s Marley & Me (2008), for instance, they included a PSA campaign about pet adoption, as well as a promotion in which gifts purchased after being “fetched” by a Marley widget on Amazon.com resulted in an 8 percent donation to the AHA.
“Courting Spielberg — or any large name — is standard,” says one employee. “PR relationships have to be established early on to ‘partner up’ for publicity purposes profiting both sides — versus us doing our job on set. Pressure is then put on the rep to ‘play nice,’ or they simply put a rep on the film who is known to ‘play nice’ while downplaying any issues that may prove controversial.”
According to employees, the desire to collaborate with Hollywood emanates from the top. They say the AHA’s CEO, Robin Ganzert, most recently deputy director of philanthropic services at the Pew Charitable Trusts and with no previous professional animal welfare experience, aggressively pursues potential revenue- and awareness-raising partnerships with the entertainment industry, and has made the glitzy annual Hero Dog Awards gala — at which prime 10-person table sponsorships start at $25,000 — a centerpiece of her three-year tenure.
Mark Stubis, a spokesman for the AHA, defends the partnerships: “It’s made very clear that that promotion is not going to happen if that end credit is not granted. It’s a completely independent action.”
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AHA’S internal critics also say that investigations into injuries and deaths rarely are initiated of the organization’s own accord. Rather, they say, AHA probes are reactive and generally a face-saving tactic when incidents that occurred on its watch emerge in the press, and that the follow-through on such inquiries is risible. “If we acknowledge that something went wrong and wasn’t a ‘tragic, unpreventable accident,’ it means we bear some responsibility,” says one employee. “The AHA does not want responsibility.”
Likewise, when monitors do report serious incidents to their superiors at the Film & TV Unit’s Studio City headquarters, they claim there rarely is significant follow-up. “There are plenty of examples where we brought things to a higher level and management squashed it,” says another staffer. “It just goes into the database and nothing ever happens. Things go away all the time; they’re never taken further.”
That attitude, AHA’s internal critics say, results in a disinclination to audit its own effectiveness in recent years. THR has obtained the last known report of such illnesses, injuries and deaths compiled by AHA, a review that spanned 2001 to 2006 and focused on the perpetually at-risk equine population. It concluded that 82 horses had been adversely affected while working on sets during this period — ranging from The Alamo to Hidalgo, Flicka to 3:10 to Yuma — with 58 injuries and eight deaths (“collision with camera car,” “stepped on lead rope,” “impalement”). Such extensive, transparent details about the reality of the on-set animal toll never have been shared with the public.
AHA’s senior management “discourages this type of data mining so the organization can appear ignorant of the facts,” one employee speculates. “Several of the reps have requested the ability to data mine and have been told there is no funding to do this and the office doesn’t have time to make this a priority.” An AHA spokesman tells THR that it “will take another study under advisement.”
PETA remains concerned. “As long as we have an organization that’s intimidated by powerful filmmakers, the animals are always going to lose,” says Kathy Guillermo, the organization’s senior vice president.
Similarly, when an investigation actually is launched, AHA’s critics question whether the goal is to get to the bottom of a case of alleged animal abuse or to minimize publicity problems for itself and the film or TV production. They describe a management intent on searching whenever possible for reasons to disregard trouble, often by declaring that an incident falls outside of its jurisdiction, particularly with those that occur physically off set, in transit or at holding facilities following days, weeks or months of an animal’s work, which can cause cumulative physical and emotional stress and fragility.
“We are responsible when there is a death to investigate it, not to ignore it,” says a staffer. “It’s in our guidelines to look at those deaths, whether on camera or off, to make sure that the presence of the production, even just the hustle and bustle of the set, didn’t cause the death.”
The aversion to investigations also is illustrated, sources say, by the tightly circumscribed jurisdictional parameters that AHA management sets for itself, which the AHA says is due in part to inadequate funding even as the number of productions has dramatically increased over the years. The sources point to a lack of interest in pursuing inquiries in recent years into, for example, why sick animals might have been made to work by trainers, as in the productions of Marmaduke and Our Idiot Brother.
Or why a trainer was allowed to illegally transfer exotic animals across state lines, forcing their euthanasia. (Four deer meant to work on a Nature Valley Granola commercial were put down by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. The AHA says local authorities were responsible for the matter.) Or why animals might die in transit after a day of shooting (as occurred with the horse on War Horse, which the AHA says died “in transit home” of “natural causes”) or at a holding facility away from the set (The Hobbit‘s fatalities).
Stewart says the AHA’s hands are tied in many of these situations because of its limited budget and jurisdiction. “We need to ultimately expand our jurisdiction. Right now, we don’t have jurisdiction for animals in transit or those in holding facilities,” he says. “Those are things I want to put in place moving forward.”
The result of the alleged flaws in the AHA’S process — from its selection of monitors to the restrictions on their work and the organization’s resistance to aggressively investigate alleged animal mistreatment — calls into question the film ratings published on the organization’s website, which assess the quality and scope of animal welfare on productions, and the “No Animals Were Harmed” credit itself.
Given the end credit’s blunt declarative statement, there would not appear to be much wiggle room. But interviews with AHA sources, along with internal documents, suggest that the AHA repeatedly has presented a more positive picture of what transpired on productions than its own monitors’ internal logs would justify. Sources say that the end credit disclaimers are adjudicated, and film-rating reviews composed, without the input of the monitors who were actually on set during production, and sometimes without even reviewing their reports. (The AHA denies this.) Indeed, they say there is no set formula governing such findings, which in the end have in certain cases been determined by executives who are overly concerned with how such decisions may affect the organization’s industry relationships.
“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,” says one staffer. “Management pressures postproduction [its department responsible for the assessments] to give good reviews. Even relationships that aren’t special yet might be in the future, and they don’t want to rock the boat.”
For example, Disney’s Eight Below was awarded the end credit despite a March 21, 2005, incident report that noted: “The hero dog seriously got into a fight with two other dogs. The trainer beat the dog harshly, which included five punches to its diaphragm. Our rep spoke to him about this, and he expressed that he had no choice. The office instructed [the rep] to pull the dog.” In its statement to THR, the AHA says, “The trainer had to use force to break up the fight. As a result, the dogs were not injured.” The AHA rep also asked for more trainers to be on set.
On another Disney project, 2008’s The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, horses repeatedly were pulled from production for lameness and injuries — AHA internal database notes from June 23, 2007, show that 14 were out of commission at once — with problems ranging from a sore tail and a sore back to a “wound on nose.” Yet the production still received the “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer. According to AHA’s statement to THR, the end credit was justified because “none of the injuries were serious and none were due to intentional harm.”
In another incident, 2005’s Son of the Mask, from New Line, received the end credit, though a Feb. 2, 2004, incident filing reveals that “most of the fish died today that were under the care and control of the prop department. [Rep] said they died when the prop department totally changed the water in the tank and replaced it with town tap water.” Again, the AHA says in its statement, the credit was bestowed because “we believed this was not an intentional act of cruelty,” though it also added that the organization “today would not evaluate it in the same way.”
In an interview with THR, Candy Spelling, a national AHA board member, defends the organization’s intent behind the “No Animals Were Harmed” end credit. “I think what people think [it means] is that when a horse dies in the movies, it didn’t really die,” she says. “I think that people think [the AHA’s monitoring] is just when the cameras are rolling.” As for her interpretation of the end credit, she says, “I assume that no animals were harmed during the shooting.”
In many cases reviewd by THR, the AHA’S official explanation of events does not match up with its own internal records, often in favor of the production. Consider the death of the chipmunk during the making of Failure to Launch.
“[The handler] dropped the chipmunk, stepped on it and killed it,” according to a June 6, 2005, incident note written by the on-set monitor. “Lesson learned: Don’t carry the chipmunk on your shoulder.” Today, the AHA says the chipmunk fell out of the trainer’s pocket when he tripped.
Although the film didn’t receive the “No Animals Were Harmed” credit, the AHA attributed its denial not to the dead chipmunk but to the studio failing to screen the film for the AHA before its release. The organization’s online rating review of the film (“Monitored: Acceptable”) mentions only that a chipmunk was “prepped for several weeks and was very tame and accustomed to people,” not that one died.
As for the dead chipmunk, the AHA in its statement to THR says it was not a factor in its decision regarding the credit because “it occurred after filming and no intentional cruelty was involved.”
Indeed, the AHA’s definition of “acceptable” is so unclear that it reveals little to the public about what actually took place during production. On Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), for example, fish and other animals were killed in underwater explosions. (The AHA statement to THR contradicts its on-set rep’s contemporaneous notes and says, “The explosions were properly set up.” The AHA also says “it was never determined that the cause of the fish washing up was due to the explosions.”)
On There Will Be Blood, from Paramount Vantage, multiple horses died, including a couple from colic, which often is triggered by heatstroke. (Nine days before they died on June 15, 2006, the AHA rep on set in Texas received an anonymous complaint that “it is a very dry, hot, dusty and windy day,” and “the horses are not getting water.”)
In its statement to THR, the AHA says, “There was a rash of horses suffering from colic throughout this county” at the time. In its online review, however, the AHA did not reveal the horse deaths or that colic was an issue. It gave the film a modified end credit that read, “American Humane monitored the animal action.” The AHA says viewers were expected to infer that this truncated end credit “indicates Accidental Harm” to animals occurred on the film. No known AHA probes were launched in either case, and both films received “Acceptable” designations.
The AHA also has in recent years developed a new category, “Special Circumstances,” for productions on which — either before, during or after shooting — “an unpreventable illness, injury or fatality can occur to an animal” on a monitored set. It’s been given to The Hobbit, Luck and Sony’s Zookeeper. (A giraffe died on the latter film. The organization wrote on its website that “the necropsy revealed nothing alarming,” indicating that any health issue was “likely related to its maturing age,” but didn’t make readily available online a copy of the official report it had reviewed to arrive at this determination, or explain why an elderly giraffe was in the production in the first place.)
” ‘Special Circumstances’ is used any time AHA feels it is not in their best interest to give a film ‘Outstanding,’ ‘Acceptable,’ or ‘Unacceptable’ in order to protect their own self-interests,” says one employee.
“Believed Acceptable” is yet one more designation awarded by the AHA in cases when it hasn’t monitored all of the production’s animal action and can’t truly vouch for safety. Adds another employee of the proliferating ratings: “It’s bogus. Either animals got harmed or not.”
(Pictured, above: HBO canceled its series Luck a day after Real Awesome Jet sustained head injuries that were too severe to be treated.)
It’s in this already compromised environment that AHA’S management is moving ahead with a “fee-for-service” plan. Under the new arrangement, coverage will be paid for directly by productions, rather than solely through the IACF grant. The initiative was first proposed over the summer, with the AHA wanting it to begin Sept. 1. But the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, apparently caught off-guard, pushed back, both regarding the newly incurred costs and the short turnaround of its implementation. It’s now slated for Jan. 1.
The IACF supports the new arrangement, which will augment its grant. But AHA’s critics argue that the “fee-for-service” plan will worsen the potential conflicts of interest now that productions will pay directly for the monitors that oversee them.
Both Stewart and Rosa say the new funding plan is critical to the AHA’s ability to expand its monitoring and to protect more animals. “The industry has grown dramatically over the decades that we’ve been doing this,” Rosa says. “The model of funding we’ve had doesn’t satisfy the needs of the industry today.” Stewart adds that if the change in funding occurs, “It doesn’t compromise that ability to be objective on set.”
In addition to the “fee-for-service” plan, the AHA says it is making other major changes to its “No Animals Were Harmed” program. Putting a trained veterinarian such as Stewart in charge is one. The AHA also has converted its industry advisory committee, created in 2009, into a scientific advisory committee made up of an animal behaviorist, veterinarians, a specialist in animal ethics and welfare and others. The AHA also says that, in late 2012, it instituted a policy of requiring “third-party investigations any time a serious injury or death occur[s] on set.” Finally, in what Rosa calls a “restructuring,” the AHA recently fired several of its animal monitors, some of whom had been with the organization for many years. They will be replaced by five licensed veterinarians in states with high production rates.
The organization’s critics see that as an ominous development, a smokescreen to allow it to purge employees deemed to be troublemakers and replace them with vets who may be well positioned to care for an injured animal but aren’t trained to protect it from being harmed in the first place during the filming of a movie or TV show.
“The moral compass of the entire place is off the hook,” says one AHA employee. Adds another: “We’ve been hopeful for change, but not this. It’s not changing. It’s getting worse.”
This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.