This week, The Urchins take sides on a recent expose in The Hollywood Reporter: ‘Animals Were Harmed: Hollywood’s Nightmare of Death, Injury, and Secrecy Exposed’ by Gary Baum. Read our introduction to the topic here, and please join us in taking sides.
Sometimes there is a fine line between optimistic good faith and naiveté, even for the most well-informed. An animal rights activist since 13, I consider myself well-versed in the many injustices faced by animals today. But when I watched Ang Lee’s Life of Pi earlier this year, warning bells failed to sound. A good majority of the film depicts its hero Pi and a tiger stranded at sea. The tiger is variably shown on their small lifeboat and in the water, hungry, angry, and suffering. And all I thought was, Wow, CGI has come so far.
The use of a real tiger in the film would constitute such unimaginable cruelty that it was beyond my realm of reality. I did not even entertain the possibility. Who would be crazy/stupid/cruel enough to make a living being do all of that against its will?
And then I read The Hollywood Reporter’s American Humane Association (AHA) expose, which begins with the following correspondence between AHA monitor Gina Johnson and a colleague:
Last week we almost f-ing killed King in the water tank. This one take with him just went really bad and he got lost trying to swim to the side. Damn near drowned. I think this goes without saying but DON’T MENTION IT TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY THE OFFICE! I have downplayed the f— out of it.
The sickness I felt reading those words a week ago has yet to subside. How could Ang Lee, the film’s incredibly talented director, condone such actions? How could the film gross more than $600 million and still a year go by without anyone objecting to its use of animals?
But, of course, Life of Pi isn’t the only Hollywood production to use animals. From We Bought a Zoo to The Hobbit to Game of Thrones, Hollywood clearly sees animals as props to be used however they see fit. After everything we know about animal behaviour and intelligence, nary a Super Bowl passes without a commercial featuring some poor chimpanzee or great ape condemned to a life of isolated captivity and forced performances.
What’s worse, The Hollywood Reporter‘s expose reveals that the AHA, the very people tasked to protect these enslaved, nonconsensual entertainment workers, aren’t doing their job. Despite the near-drowning of a tiger on the Life of Pi set, the AHA still happily slapped the film with its trademark “No Animals Were Harmed” credit.
What exactly does the AHA think constitutes harm? “Collision with camera car,” “stepped on lead rope,” or “impalement,” among the 79 other fates met by horses on sets between 2001 and 2006? Being dropped, stepped on, and squashed to death like the chipmunk in Failure to Launch?
Certainly (though not enough to properly investigate.)
But the near-drowning of a large cat (and anyone who has ever met a cat can tell you how much they love water)? Nope.
Any human would testify that almost drowning is a significantly traumatic experience. If, due to neglect, a child at camp had the same experience as Life of Pi‘s tiger, its parents would most definitely think their child had been harmed.
Similarly, the animals used in film, television, and commercials don’t simply arrive from the wild camera-ready. How do they become tame enough to be kept on a confined set? How do learn all of those “cute” human-like gestures and movements?
Firstly, they are either born into captivity or hunted in the wild only to be shipped thousands of miles to be kept in captivity. Secondly, they are “trained.” Like the elephant owned by performing animal supplier Have Trunk Will Travel and used in 2011’s Water for Elephants, training includes the use of electric shocks with hand held stun gun and beatings with billhooks (sharp steel hooks at the end of long handles).
Additionally, the AHA’s certification only applies to incidents on set. If an animal dies in-transit or at an off-set holding facility, the production can still proudly proclaim that “No Animals Were Harmed.”
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian received such certification even though as many as 14 horses were injured at once. Son of the Mask also received the certification, despite “most of the fish” dying on set when their water was replaced incorrectly.
Because, according to the AHA, “none of the injuries were serious and none were due to intentional harm” and “[they] believed this was not an intentional act of cruelty.”
So as far as we can tell, “harm” does not encompass near-drowning, non-serious injuries, or anything that happens unintentionally. Essentially, an animal would have to be murdered on set for a film, television show, or commercial to be condemned by the AHA.
As an organisation with animals’ best interests in mind (short of them not being used for entertainment in the first place, of course), the AHA should take responsibility for their well-being above and beyond doling out apparently arbitrary certifications of animal welfare. If horses are suffering from heat-induced colic on set, as happened during the filming of 2008’s There Will Be Blood, the AHA monitor should do more than casually note a complaint that the horses aren’t being watered on very dry, hot, dusty, windy days. The horses died a week later.
The AHA should hold productions accountable, not simply neutrally assess whatever conditions they establish. But as an AHA told the Reporter, “If we acknowledge that something went wrong and wasn’t a ‘tragic, unpreventable accident,’ it means we bear some responsibility. The AHA does not want responsibility.”
But if not the AHA, then whom? If animals were not being held and made to participate in the entertainment industry, they would not be harmed. Full stop. But as long as the entertainment industry persists in their use as “performers,” the public has three options: silent complicity, complete boycott, or comprehensive and extreme animal welfare reforms in the industry. Where will you stand?