The hottest gig in the world of animal acting these days is down under, for Peter Jackson's filming of the rest of his Hobbit trilogy. It drew interest from A-list New Zealand professionals like Nellie, the miniature Galloway cow, and Rainbow, a miniature pony. It also killed 27 of them. The AP's Nick Perry spoke to wranglers for the movie, who described the farm where The Hobbit's animals were being held as a "death trap" for the four-legged actors housed there. "A spokesman for trilogy director Peter Jackson on Monday acknowledged that horses, goats, chickens and one sheep died at the farm near Wellington where about 150 animals were housed for the movies, but he said some of the deaths were from natural causes," reports Perry. "One wrangler said that over time he buried three horses, as well as about six goats, six sheep and a dozen chickens."

The sad part is that the Animal Humane Association will still give the film the "No animals were harmed during the actual filming" tag, because as Perry explains, the organization only monitors set conditions, not the off-site farm where they were being held. (PETA, of course, has been griping about the series since September and is already planning protests for the first installment come December.)

It's still a bit tough to figure to put faces to the death toll, but we do know that Hobbit was a giant deal for New Zealand's animal actors. "All the animals I own personally are rare breeds and some of them are pretty much semi-pro actors now. Some of them had to stand in one position for five hours solid while actors worked around them and it requires a lot of professionalism," Michael Willis, a farmer who provided 13 of his animals for the then-unknown death trap, told The Press of New Zealand on November 15. Hear that? And prepare yourself for the sadness when you hear how this pony Rainbow was treated: "When I arrived at work in the morning, the pony was still alive but his back was broken. He'd come off a bank at speed and crash-landed ... He was in a bad state."

Update 2:31 p.m. After the AP's story on the deaths went public, the producers of The Hobbit have issued a statement denying the animal deaths. Perry noted that "a spokesman for Peter Jackson" acknowledged the deaths of 27 animals, but apparently the producers don't want to be spoken for or lumped into that acknowledgment. 

"The producers completely reject the accusations that twenty seven animals died due to mistreatment during the making of the films," reads the statement and it adds, "The American Humane Association (AHA) was on hand to monitor all use of animals by the production. No animals died or were harmed on set during filming." That latter part is sort of empty. Here's why: it sounds very similar to what Perry explained about the AHA earlier, and how their certification of "animals being harmed" is exactly what it means. As Perry noted, the AHA did say that no animals were killed while filming or on set, but the couldn't and do not comment on animals that may have died off-set.

Their full statement can be found here.