'Life of Pi' Tiger Trainer Allegedly Caught on Video Whipping Animal

Life of Pi Film Still - H 2013
Fox 2000 Pictures

Life of Pi Film Still - H 2013

Bowmanville Zoo director Michael Hackenberger, who's supplied animals for a number of TV and film productions, denied claims by animal rights group PETA that he struck a Siberian tiger with a whip 19 times.

A trainer who has supplied animals for a number of Hollywood productions allegedly has been caught on video whipping and verbally abusing a Siberian tiger under his care. 

In a video obtained by animal rights group PETA, the director of Canada's Bowmanville Zoo, Michael Hackenberger, is seen swearing and whipping the young tiger 19 times. The video shows the tiger cowering in the face of the beating and rolling onto its back, a fear response in big cats, according to PETA. The zoo is located roughly an hour outside of Toronto.

Hackenberger, in a YouTube video made in the performance ring where the incident took place, rejects PETA's allegations that he abused the Siberian tiger. "The images captured are misrepresented by PETA, and I would go so far as to say they're lying," he says at the beginning of the 31-minute video.

Hackenberger has supplied animals for a number of TV and film productions including Seth Rogen's The Interview as well as, most famously, Jonas, a Bengal tiger who featured prominently in Ang Lee's Life of Pi (although the 2012 film also used computer-generated visual effects to portray the tiger). A Hollywood Reporter investigation revealed in 2013 that another tiger on the set of Life of Pi allegedly nearly drowned during filming, according to an email from an American Humane Association monitor.

In the edited video released by PETAHackenberger is heard discussing the best ways to inflict pain on tigers. "I like hitting them in the face and the paws. … And the beauty of the paws being on the rock, when you hit them, it's like a vice, … it stings more!" he says in the video.

Seemingly aware that his actions would be criticized by animal rights advocates, Hackenberger also tells the witness to keep them secret. "[I]f we'd been running a video tape the whole time you were here, and you did a 45-second montage of the times I struck this animal, … PETA would burn this place to the ground," he tells the witness. 

In a statement to THRPETA says it will report Hackenberger's abuse to the Ontario SPCA and call for an investigation of Hackenberger and the confiscation of the tiger. The PETA Foundation's deputy director of captive animal law enforcement, Brittany Peet, says: "You should no more whip a young tiger than a young child — it's out of line and, we believe, outside of the law."

Alison Cross, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, confirms to THR that her agency is probing the alleged animal abuse.

"We just received the information regarding the incident and we are looking into the evidence now. As such, an investigation is now open," says Cross via email.

In his YouTube defense video, Hackenberger plays the original video of the alleged abuse, before apologizing for his "atrocious" language. He then turns to the issue of abuse, arguing that he didn't directly whip the tiger as many times as PETA alleges.

"I did not strike this animal," Hackenberger says at one point, except for two initial lashes to apparently turn the tiger around. "I do not strike him. I strike the ground beside him." What's more, the trainer claims the tiger moved because of the commands of his assistant.  

Hackenberger in his video is seen petting the tiger with his hand, something he argues would not be possible had he abused the animal. Hackenberger has not responded to The Hollywood Reporter's request for further comment.

In response to Hackenberger's defense video, PETA's Peet says, "Michael Hackenberger was caught on camera repeatedly and viciously striking a young tiger who lay cowering on his back out of fear and discussing the most effective ways to hit animals, stating quite plainly, 'I like hitting him in the face' — yet Hackenberger lies even about having said this. Wild animals like Uno perform stressful and confusing tricks because they're terrified that they'll be beaten if they don't. There is no excuse for beating an animal, any more than there is for hitting a child."

The disturbing video obtained from PETA is below; readers are advised that the scenes are upsetting. Hackenberger's defense video follows the clip from PETA.