A deep dive by The Hollywood Reporter into the shady world of animal protection on movie sets alleges that things in Hollywood are much more unseemly if you look below the surface. THR's Gary Baum investigated the suspect practices and policies that govern animal oversight on movie sets, and the results are not encouraging.
After speaking with six current employees from the American Humane Association, the 136-year-old Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit whose Film & TV unit is responsible for insuring animal safety in movies and television, and reviewing internal documents, Baum alleges the animal safety oversight body awards acceptable safety designations to movies and television shows that do not deserve them. You know the “No Animals Were Harmed” message you see in movie credits, filling your heart with joy knowing the little doggy wasn't seriously hurt? The AHA grants that designation and, as Baum found, it's allegedly sometimes a lie.
Take, for instance, the case of the tiger that almost drowned during the filming of Ang Lee's Oscar-winning 2012 film Life of Pi. Baum opens his story with an email written by Gina Johnson, the AHA monitor assigned to Pi, detailing an incident in which King, the tiger, "nearly drowned." An investigation later revealed that Johnson, who was also in an "intimate relationship" with an executive working on the film, tried to keep the story quiet.
“I think this goes without saying but DON’T MENTION IT TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY THE OFFICE!” Johnson wrote in an email about the drowning. “I have downplayed the f— out of it." Pi received the "No Animals Were Harmed" distinction.
Baum draws the reader's attention to the inherent conflict of interest at the center of the AHA's Film & TV Unit. The majority of the group's funding comes from a multi-million dollar grant from the Industry Advancement and Cooperative Fund, which is jointly run by the SAG-AFTRA actors’ union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. If the producers and actors control the animal safety oversight board, the thinking goes, then perhaps the animal safety oversight board actively wants to appease the producers and actors — by maybe overlooking some serious violations that should otherwise go reported, thereby endangering entire productions.
There are a number of other instances when movies should have been investigated further but were not. The problems, the AHA alleges, stems from budgetary restrictions. Further, having a designated monitor on every film set in the country for every movie with animals takes manpower and budgets the AHA simply does not have. But that's no excuse for the slack work from some monitors who grant acceptable ratings after spending only a few minutes on set:
“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.”
Baum also criticizes the AHA for failing to examine its own effectiveness at securing animal safety on set. The last internal audit on the organization's effectiveness — reviewing animal illnesses, injuries and deaths on set — covered 2001 to 2006, including movies like Hidalgo, Flicka, The Alamo and the 3:10 to Yuma remake. The report found that "82 horses had been adversely affected while working on sets during this period... with 58 injuries and eight deaths," Baum writes.
Recent modifications to the AHA's already convoluted ranking system, and a house-cleaning of old film monitors, have not appeased the group's critics. You can and should read the entire story on THR here.