Are Animal Rules for TVs And Movies Strict Enough?

The rules are extensive, but after three horses died in the filming of the HBO show “Luck,” some are wondering if they’re strict enough

Ellen Fitzsimons

You’ve probably seen this disclaimer before: “No animals were harmed in the making of this film.” But while filming the HBO show “Luck” three different horses were injured and euthanized last year. That was one of the most publicized examples of animals dying for someone’s art, but the New York Times found other examples, too: Two dozen animals died while filming The Hobbit series. A shark died while filming a Kmart commercial. All these animal deaths are causing many to wonder whether or not the American Humane Association’s rules are strict enough, or enforced well enough, to keep animals safe.

The AHA’s guidelines are 131 pages long and include checklists for producers. They ask for a copy of the script, the names of any animal handlers and veterinarians, the location of the shooting and all crew lists, script changes and other information that might help the association keep an eye on the animals. They instruct producers not to film during extreme weather or during the hottest or coldest parts of the day. Animals must be transported safely, not over-rehearsed or over-worked and never left unattended. There should be no alcohol used around animals ever, they say, and props should all be made of rubber or balsa wood. The list goes on.

After the Kmart shark incident, PETA jumped in to criticize the AHA, claiming that people were jumping in and out of the pool with the shark and that there wasn’t an AHA representative on the scene. They told ABC News:

“Repeatedly, we see falling short when it comes to protecting animals,” Gallucci said. “They never should have approved this. They should have immediately stopped shooting when the shark was showing signs of stress.”

Of course, PETA is opposed to any use of live animals in filming of all kinds, so the criticism of the AHA isn’t surprising. The AHA responded that PETA’s claims were inaccurate, that there was someone on the scene and that no one was jumping into the pool with the shark.

But this case highlights a difficult area for animal vets. After the shark began to look ill and was rushed to the vet, it was simply too late. Vets really don’t know much about many of these exotic animals before we use them in commercials or television, so even if they look for warning signs, they aren’t totally sure what to look for.

There are other challenges to keeping up with production as well. The AHA is a non-profit, and they simply can’t monitor everything the way they would like to. In the Kmart shark case, they didn’t watch how the shark was transported because they didn’t have enough time or resources. Here’s the New York Times:

The humane association argues that it is struggling to meet the challenges of protecting animals in an era of modern filmmaking. “We’re not covering enough animal action, because of the way the business model in the industry has changed,” Robin R. Ganzert, the association’s chief executive, said in a phone interview last month.

But others aren’t so keen on giving the AHA more power over producers. Some say that they industry is already far too heavily regulated. Benay Karp, whose company supplies everything from skunks to rhinos to film companies, told the New York Times, “It feels to us that they’re becoming an animal rights organization no longer interested in what’s right and wrong in the industry, but only in collecting money.”

The AHA is funded by grants from the industry, and this year they were allotted about $2.1 million. That translated into monitoring 3,498 days of shooting, and 570 “no animals were harmed” certifications.

That includes making sure that the producers of CSI don’t put black widows and pill bugs together—which breaks the AHA rule prohibiting putting animals that might eat each other in the same container. You can see which movies got the thumbs up from the AHA, and which didn’t, on their site. Some even put a fake credit at the end, like District 9, which included a notice, not authorized by the AHA, that ”no animals were harmed in the making of this movie.” The King’s Speech was also knocked for falsely claiming to have been approved by the AHA. They claimed they had no idea that the phrase was trademarked.

More from Smithsonian:

Should Dolphins and Whales Have Human Rights?

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