Many Hollywood action pictures feature animals performing risky stunts, leaving moviegoers to wonder whether the on-screen danger is real or make-believe. And for a decade, audiences have been comforted by the endorsement that appears in the final credits: "No animals were harmed in the making of this film."
A Los Angeles nonprofit group is responsible for monitoring the treatment of animals appearing in domestic productions, from the hairless cat Mr. Bigglesworth in the camp film "Austin Powers II" to cockroaches in "Problem Child II."
"A lot of animals have gone home happy because we were there," says Gini Barrett, director of the American Humane Assn.'s Film and TV Unit.
But an examination of the little-known unit reveals that the group has been slow to criticize cases of animal mistreatment, yet quick to defend the big-budget studios it is supposed to police. It also raises questions about the association's effectiveness.
Interviews and internal documents show that:
* The association Web site gave a "believed acceptable" rating to Walt Disney Co.'s 1999 action flick "The 13th Warrior," even though a horse had to be destroyed after a wire used in one scene sliced through the animal's tendons and an artery. The film did not receive the AHA's on-screen endorsement.
"The leg was . . . just like a plate of chopped liver," said Dorothy Sabey, a Canadian humane official who monitored the filming for the AHA. "It was horrible."
* The "no animals were harmed" seal appeared on New Line Cinema's "Simpatico," despite the death of an old bay quarter horse that ruptured a ligament and staggered to the ground during filming at the Los Alamitos racetrack. The AHA said it was unaware that the film carried its approval.
* The association found no basis for suspicion of horse abuse in 1998 on the set of the CBS television show "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." The program's own producer, however, said she was so alarmed by the treatment of a dozen horses that she fired the show's animal trainer. TV programs do not typically carry AHA's on-screen endorsements.
* Shock collars and BB guns were used to train horses for "Running Free," a Sony Pictures release about wild horses filmed in Namibia. The AHA gave the movie high marks on its Web site without disclosing the controversial training techniques, which the association discourages.
The issue of animal safety in films is more critical than ever, in part because of an explosion in recent years of family and PG-rated movies, many of which make extensive use of animals.
Since 1980, a clause in the Screen Actors Guild contract with producers has granted sole authority for monitoring the treatment of animals in movies, television shows, commercials and music videos to the AHA's Film and TV Unit. The agreement covers most significant productions in the U.S.
But the unit, the interviews and internal documents show, lacks any meaningful enforcement power under the SAG contract, depends on major studios to pay for its operations and is rife with conflicts of interest.
The unit's director, Barrett, 55, served as a senior vice president and head of the political action committee for the powerful Alliance for Motion Picture and Television Producers before becoming director of the AHA film unit in 1997. Despite her ties to the industry, Barrett said, she has not been afraid to take on Hollywood producers.
"We have accomplished a great deal, worked on an awful lot of productions [and] solved a lot of problems," said Barrett, the wife of former Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz.
Barrett has been accused by her own staff of interfering with animal welfare probes that could prove embarrassing to filmmakers and studios. In addition, a confidential inquiry found Barrett was aware that a former AHA attorney in charge of field investigations in 1999 dated two trainers whose animal compounds she was assigned to oversee.
The AHA filed a lawsuit last month seeking to prevent the Los Angeles Times from publishing this article because it might include information from the confidential report, a document written by the AHA's law firm. On Jan. 25, Superior Court Judge Dzintra I. Janavs denied the group's motion.
Top AHA officials said they are proud of the film unit's work and that Barrett enjoys their full support.
"I think we do a good job, a very good job. I don't think we're compromising the safety of animals at all," said AHA President Timothy O'Brien.
Barrett, a former Los Angeles animal regulation commissioner, has announced she will leave her $108,000-a-year post by the end of this month to tend to her own business affairs. Her replacement is Karen F. Goschen, AHA's chief financial officer.
The AHA also receives wide praise from Hollywood producers and directors for not only looking after the safety of animals, but cast members as well.
"They provide a service to this industry that is extremely important," said J. Nicholas Counter, head of the Alliance for Motion Picture and Television Producers.
It is unknown how many animals are injured or killed each year on movie sets, because the AHA doesn't keep track. Barrett estimated that only 10 to 15 animals suffered injuries or deaths in thousands of productions over the last four years.
Such a low estimate, say some animal activists and humane groups, underscores their criticism that the AHA film unit is beholden to the motion picture industry.
"The Hollywood office of AHA is nothing more than a public relations firm for Hollywood animal trainers and the studios," said Pat Derby, head of the Performing Animal Welfare Society in Northern California.
The American Humane Assn. has been entrusted with protecting animals on sets since 1939, when the producers of "Jesse James" created a Hollywood scandal by filming a horse plunging to its death 70 feet off a cliff into a lake.
Often confused with the much larger and better-known Humane Society of the United States, the AHA was founded in 1877 and is based in Englewood, Colo.
The AHA film unit, run out of a converted doctor's office next to the 405 Freeway in Sherman Oaks, lacks the staffing and resources to keep tabs on the nearly $8-billion film industry, Barrett acknowledged. Its annual budget is $1.5 million--or 1% of the amount Disney is spending on the upcoming film "Pearl Harbor."
Still, Barrett claimed the unit's nine full-time field reps, along with 25 part-timers scattered throughout the country, observe parts of 850 productions a year, or roughly 80% to 90% of all U.S. films involving animals. The AHA's own documents, however, suggest the number of films monitored is considerably fewer. The AHA's authority has been further eroded by the increasing number of productions filmed in foreign countries, most of which are not subject to the SAG contact.
The AHA staff reviews scripts and production schedules before deploying on-set observers. If a scene is determined to involve more than "simple" animal action--say, a dog walking to a water bowl--a monitor will visit the production site to discuss the sequence and watch the filming.
Employees follow a 30-page manual of guidelines covering the treatment of performing animals, from dogs to spiders. The regulations cover such details as how to stage horse-mounted sword fights, suture closed the mouths of venomous snakes and keep a fish out of water (no more than 30 seconds, three times a day).
Lacking any authority to enforce the guidelines, however, the association's clout largely comes from the power to bestow or withhold the familiar endorsement that appears in a movie's screen credits. At least two AHA investigators are humane officers who have the authority to enforce state anti-cruelty laws. The AHA also offers reviews and ratings of movies on its Web site, http://www .ahafilm.com.
About 90% of the more than 1,400 movies listed on the Web site are rated "acceptable" or "believed acceptable" for animal care and handling. Only 4% are rated "unacceptable." In all, 52 productions dating back to the 1970s received outright "unacceptable" ratings; most are obscure B-movies such as the 1979 horror flick "Cannibal Holocaust."
Barrett credits the Web site, which she says attracts thousands of viewers each day, with giving the group leverage over producers.
"Ten years ago, we could rate a film 'unacceptable' and the studio might be embarrassed and upset, but we didn't have producers on their knees, crying," Barrett said. "Now we do."
Over the years, the AHA unit has criticized some big-budget films, such as Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film "Apocalypse Now," in which an ox is hacked to death as a sacrifice, and Warren Beatty's 1981 film "Reds," in which horses were tripped.
But, more recently, it has questioned only a few productions by major studios. In the last 10 years, just one studio release has received an outright "unacceptable" rating--an obscure 1999 MGM release, "One Man's Hero."
Other movies have been criticized for mistreating fish, rodents and insects. While Universal's "Problem Child II" starring John Ritter received good marks for the handling of some animals, it was panned by the AHA for contributing to the deaths of several cockroaches in a sequence filmed over the AHA's objections.
Asked why so few films receive negative ratings, Barrett said the numbers show that the AHA is succeeding in its mission. "Most of the time, animals in motion pictures enjoy one of the best lifestyles for animals in the world," she said.
Employees have accused the association's film unit of caving in to the studios on major investigations. In 1999, several staffers were so distressed by the office work environment that they complained directly to the AHA board of directors in Colorado, prompting at least two internal reviews.
Edward L. Lish, a veteran investigator and coordinator of the film unit's field operations, wrote a memo detailing how the AHA pulled punches with major studios, which would face public relations problems if criticized. While confirming the contents of the memo, Lish declined to comment further.
In his memo, Lish cited concerns about the AHA film unit's handling of several movies, including "The 13th Warrior," the Disney movie starring Antonio Banderas.
On Sept. 5, 1997, two horses were hurt during successive takes of a Viking battle scene in which a stunt rider was jerked from his mount by a wire cable, internal records show. The first time, a horse got a leg tangled in the lengthy cable and sustained a treatable injury. During a subsequent take, the cable wrapped around another horse's leg and severed the tendons when the animal bolted, dragging the rider through mud. The horse had to be destroyed.
Eight other dangerous or inhumane acts may have occurred during the filming, according to an AHA draft letter in June 1999. They included a wrangler pushing a cow into the mud, then dragging it out with a horse. This occurred in front of the cast, crew and Banderas' wife, actress Melanie Griffith, "who was reportedly very upset," the draft letter said. And, contrary to acceptable animal-handling guidelines, one horse was sedated during a stunt and another was forced to jump over bales of hay and land on a hard surface.
Six days later, Barrett and Lish flew to the production site in British Columbia to investigate. The AHA eventually concluded that the horse's death was an "industrial accident" and that "no cruelty occurred" during filming. Although no end-credit approval was granted, the AHA awarded the film a "believed acceptable" rating.
Dorothy Sabey, 64, the Canadian humane official who monitored the scene on behalf of the AHA, said she felt the incident was "quietly shoveled under the carpet." She added: "You can say it was an accident, but it was an avoidable accident. It didn't have to happen."
Disney official Bruce Hendricks said he was never informed about the death of the horse on "The 13th Warrior," and should have been because he is the studio's main liaison with the AHA.
In his memo, Lish said Barrett prevented him from interviewing witnesses. Barrett "didn't want things 'stirred up' before the movie was about to open," Lish wrote. "I was told not to follow up on calls I thought I needed to make."
Barrett acknowledged telling Lish not to make the calls, but said he had approached her about "tying up loose ends" long after the case was closed. "We don't have enough resources to plow the same field over and over again," said Barrett, who has no investigative experience.
Another case involved an aging quarter horse that ruptured a ligament during November 1998 filming of "Simpatico," a picture starring Nick Nolte and Sharon Stone and released by New Line's Fine Line division. The animal came up lame during a race sequence at Los Alamitos and had to be destroyed.
The AHA suspected mistreatment and foul play, according to Lish's memo and other documents, before deciding that no cruelty took place. But Lish complained that Barrett took the probe away from him and gave it to a less-experienced AHA official.
Barrett said her staff pursued all leads until the investigation "sort of ran out of gas."
The AHA unit placed its "Simpatico" monitor on probation for failing to examine the fitness of the animals or even inquire about the fate of the stricken horse, internal records show.
Even though the association withheld its seal of approval and gave the film a "questionable" rating, the credits for "Simpatico" included the AHA endorsement. Barrett was unaware of the unauthorized use of the endorsement until it was brought to her attention by The Times. The AHA recently explained on its Web site that the disclaimer was unauthorized.
Fine Line officials said they had nothing to do with the credits because they had purchased the movie from a French pay-TV company.
In "Running Free," Sony provided the AHA with two reports from inspectors with the Animal Anti-Cruelty League of South Africa that revealed occasional use of shock collars and BB guns to train horses. One inspector, Louis Vermeulen, said his group frowns on such training techniques, which also have long been discouraged by the AHA.
Vermeulen's report praised the overall treatment of animals, but noted that four horses died or were euthanized during filming--none due to "neglect or irresponsibility." A 16-year-old gelding named "Rommel" died of a heart attack after exhibiting a history of "unease, unwillingness to work or move," and a 12-day-old foal succumbed to a brain injury after "possibly" getting kicked in the head while being transported to the set in a trailer, the report said.
AHA gave the film a "believed acceptable" rating on its Web site without mentioning the controversial training methods or the deaths of the horses. Barrett said the information on the deaths was omitted because Vermeulen's report was not in AHA files. The AHA plans to update its Web site to mention the deaths of the four horses, she said.
At Sony's request, the AHA also awarded "Running Free" a joint on-screen endorsement with an overseas animal rights group, even though no one from AHA had monitored the movie.
"It's not like they [Sony] twisted my arm," Barrett said Thursday, after reviewing the South African reports. "I still think they did a good job on the film. Why wouldn't I want to endorse that?"
In the case of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," the TV show's own producer initiated action against an animal trainer. The association ruled that horses were "not in young, perfect condition" but sound enough to work, Barrett said.
However, a dozen horses were so lame and ill that their use had to be severely curtailed, according to Beth Sullivan, the veteran producer of "Dr. Quinn," and the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Sullivan said she was so upset that she fired the horse wrangler.
The AHA also drew fire for its response when a female elephant, Akili, died suddenly in 1998 on the Ventura County set of the television show "Born Free." Barrett issued a news release a day later, saying that "Akili was well cared for and appeared healthy." At the time, a necropsy was pending to determine what killed the animal. The necropsy found that the elephant had died of a twisting of the large colon.
The AHA's reaction drew a sharp rebuke from Pat Derby, the head of the Performing Animal Welfare Society. She questioned why the association rushed to judgment on behalf of the show and its trainer.
"Whenever anything goes wrong, she jumps in and says everything is fine," said Derby, a longtime critic of Barrett.
More recently, AHA officials waited months to weigh in about persistent reports that horses were abused during the New Zealand filming of "Lord of the Rings," part of New Line Cinema's long-anticipated $270-million trilogy. The allegations sparked local news reports and investigations by New Zealand government officials, who found nothing.
Despite receiving dozens of e-mails since October alleging mistreatment on the set of "Lord of the Rings," AHA officials did not contact or initiate a meeting with New Line executives until mid-January.
Barrett said the AHA is stretched too thin to look into the non-SAG production--among Hollywood's most expensive projects ever. "We frankly didn't have the resources to go and beat down the door and try to argue with them about it," she said.
In a meeting last month, AHA officials "asked questions and we answered all of them," said New Line spokesman Steve Elzer. "They were more than satisfied with our answers." Nevertheless, Barrett said that none of the three "Lord of the Ring" films will receive the association's endorsement, since no AHA monitor was invited to the set.
Money From Studios
Since the early '80s, the major studios have directly paid for the AHA film unit's budget. Concerned about the appearance of improper influence, film companies changed the arrangement in 1993 by depositing money into a fund overseen jointly by producers and the Screen Actors Guild. This fund now doles out about $1.5 million a year to the AHA.
In addition, the AHA accepted money directly from two major studios to cover the cost of monitoring movies overseas. Disney spokeswoman Andrea Marozas said the company agreed to pay travel and hotel expenses for an AHA monitor to watch filming in London of the recently released "102 Dalmatians" because the company anticipated that the film's extensive use of dogs would attract scrutiny.
The AHA issued a December 1999 news release boasting that it was sending one of its "key field representatives" for the "herculean task" of monitoring the film, without disclosing that Disney was paying the bill.
The film received the AHA endorsement as well as a favorable rating.
Barrett said the AHA also accepted money from Warner Bros. to pay for a representative to be on the set of the upcoming "Harry Potter" movie.
Such arrangements, Barrett said, do not pose a conflict for the AHA. "But the reality is that we don't have enough money to cover projects which are international and last for a long time."
Another case that raised conflict-of-interest questions caused the AHA film unit to erupt in turmoil 16 months ago.
An internal inquiry found that Tiffany R. Hedgpeth, an attorney and the film unit's manager of research and investigations, had "relationships" in 1999 with two Hollywood trainers whose animal compounds she was responsible for overseeing.
Hedgpeth dated two trainers, according to a confidential report written by Gregory F. Hurley, an attorney with the AHA's labor law firm, Kutak Rock. The report states that Barrett knew of both relationships and "encouraged her to contact" one of the men.
The report concluded that Hedgpeth demonstrated "a gross lack of professional judgment" and criticized Barrett for allowing the relationships to occur.
Hedgpeth said in an interview that she was isolated from any potential conflict because Barrett agreed to personally handle any investigation involving the trainers.
But the inquiry found that Hedgpeth signed letters that were subsequently sent to Hollywood trainers, including the two men she dated, seeking permission to inspect and certify their animal compounds. Hedgpeth described her action as "just a rubber-stamped name." Barrett declined to comment.
The controversy prompted Los Angeles attorney and AHA board member Paul S. Ablon to look into the matter and issue a stinging report in October 1999.
Ablon warned: "Charitably summarizing the situation in the L.A. [AHA] office, I would say that it is marked by intrigue, distrust and flagrant hostility."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Of the more than 1,400 productions listed on the American Humane Assn. Web site, 90% are rated "acceptable" or "believed acceptable." Only 4% are rated "unacceptable."
Believed acceptable: 25%
Source: American Humane Assn.
Researched by NONA YATES/Los Angeles Times
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The American Humane Assn.'s Film and TV Unit rated the following films "unacceptable":
"The Abyss", 1989
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Explanation: A rat is submerged in liquid in one scene, where it panics and struggles and is pulled out by its tail. The rat survived but the AHA said it was unnecessary to use the animal in that way.
"Lord of the Flies", 1990
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Explanation: This production was filmed in Jamaica, with no AHA representative present. The AHA determined that a puffer fish had been killed during filming.
"One Man's Hero", 1999
Explanation: After viewing the film, which was shot in Mexico without AHA oversight, the association it appeared that horses had been tripped with wires.
Source: American Humane Assn. Film and TV Unit Web site
Researched by NONA YATES / Los Angeles Times