'The Hobbit': Two Animal Rights Groups Want Expanded Oversight in Wake of Deaths

Warner Bros.' 'The Hobbit'

A wild card for Warners, The Hobbit opens on Dec. 14 and returns Lord of the Rings helmer Peter Jackson to the imaginative world of J.R.R. Tolkien. In 2004, Jackson won three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay) for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

The American Humane Association wants to extend its jurisdiction over the movie, while PETA is planning protests at the premiere.

After a series of deaths among animals used during production of Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson’s long-awaited adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, two leading animal rights organizations are seeking an expansion of oversight during filming.

The American Humane Association is seeking to extend its ability to oversee animal welfare from the actual sets to the facilities in which the nonhuman actors are housed, while the more militant PETA plans protests at the premiere of The Hobbit.

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The controversy is an interesting one because it doesn’t involve allegations that any “animal actors” -- as the AHA likes to call them -- were harmed during the filming of The Hobbit. Instead, both organizations point to the deaths of two horses, various chickens and goats as well as at least one sheep at the New Zealand ranch more than 100 miles from the main set, where animals used during production of the film were housed.

Conditions there apparently were hazardous with numerous steep bluffs, sink hoes and marauding dogs, which took a toll on the animals involved in Jackson’s film. While the AHA routinely monitors animal welfare on the film sets, ensuring that veterinary care is available on site, in this case the group also took the initiative in restoring safe conditions to the ranch, where the deaths occurred. As a result of that experience, the AHA -- backed by PETA -- is seeing formal recognition of its right to monitor conditions at facilities where film animals are kept.

“We do not (currently) have either the jurisdiction or funding to extend ... oversight to activities or conditions off set or before animals come under our protection,” AHA president and CEO Dr. Robin Ganzert said. “There are too many incidents off the set, and this must stop.  It is vital that we work with the industry to bring the kind of protection we have for animals during filming to all phases of production.” 

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Because of AHA monitoring of the animal action, which included having a licensed veterinarian on the scene, no animals were harmed on set during filming of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. However, upon learning of injuries and deaths of animals while being housed at a working farm 186 miles from the main set and 26 miles from the soundstage, AHA went beyond its jurisdiction and authority to visit, examine and make safety recommendations and improvements to the farm. 

Ganzert would like to see that role extended to other film productions as well as to facilities that house so-called “animal actors” in retirement.