Six months after HBO canceled its racetrack drama “Luck” in the wake of three horse deaths, questions continue be raised about whether there is adequate oversight of horses and animals used on movies and TV shows.
The latest dispute has pitted the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is opposed to use of any live animals on film sets, against the American Humane Assn., a nonprofit group responsible for the “no animals were harmed” credits on films and TV shows. The group monitors more than 2,000 productions that use animal performers and is partly supported by SAG and AFTRA producers cooperative funds.
In a letter sent to the American Humane Assn. board of directors Monday, PETA accused AHA of failing to provide adequate oversight to ensure the safety of animals. The letter urges the group to investigate a series of incidents on several high-profile film and television projects, including the films “The Hobbit,” “The Lone Ranger” and the HBO show “Boardwalk Empire.”
The incidents, which PETA officials said were based on anonymous complaints from “whistle-blower” animal trainers and others working with AHA representatives, involved cases where animals died during productions or had been put in dangerous situations.
“We received an unprecedented number of reports concerning more than a dozen film and television projects,’’ PETA stated in its Sept. 10 letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. “All these allegations suggest that problems could have been avoided with adequate oversight by AHA. In some cases it is alleged that AHA management looked the other way or was even complicit in arranging for the filming of sequences that were potentially dangerous for animals.”
In a statement, AHA dismissed the allegations, saying they were raised by “second and third party sources, including a disgruntled AHA employee. These allegations derive from falsehoods, inaccuracies and deliberately misleading statements.”
AHA also defended its track record, saying, “We work with people to prevent and solve problems so that animals and human beings may enjoy a successful and productive experience in their working lives.”
The missive is another flash point in a long-standing feud between the two groups. PETA had criticized AHA’s role in the three horse deaths on “Luck,” questioning the fitness of the horses for filming and contending that the producers had ignored many recommendations of state-certified experts hired by AHA. HBO and AHA disputed those claims.
AHA's film and TV office, which is based in Studio City, has eight full-time animal safety representatives and an additional 32 on-call representatives nationwide. The organization, which has been monitoring filmed entertainment for more than 70 years, often works with producers to review scripts. It also sends out certified animal safety representatives to ensure that productions follow its detailed safety and animal welfare guidelines, which contain protocols for handling everything from worms and lizards to monkeys, cats and horses.
But animal-rights activists have raised questions over the years about the group's ability to protect animals on sets given its ties to the entertainment industry.
The incidents cited by PETA included three horse deaths that occurred during the filming of “The Hobbit” in New Zealand last year. PETA alleges that AHA representatives ignored problems identified by an animal wrangler who was fired after raising concerns about how the horses were housed.
New Line Cinema, producer of “The Hobbit,” challenged the account. “Throughout production we worked closely with, and were monitored by, the American Humane Association and took great care to follow their guidelines. We also worked with a local veterinary surgeon to ensure the ongoing health and welfare of all the animals in our charge.”
In Walt Disney Studios’ “The Lone Ranger,” one trainer was fired for refusing to cooperate with producers over a scene in which horses and riders were to swim across the Colorado River, according to PETA. One of the horses and a rider were swept downriver and had to be pulled ashore, the group said.
A Disney spokeswoman contradicted the account, saying no trainer was fired, the horse was not injured and the incident occurred when the animal lost its footing after filming had wrapped.
In other instances, PETA claims, AHA representatives were kept away from the set, including a recent elk-fighting scene in Millennium Films’ upcoming movie “Killing Season,” starring Robert De Niro and John Travolta
A spokesperson for Millennium said executives were not available for comment.
The group also alleged that “extremely stressful conditions” contributed to a horse death June 25 during filming of the cable TV series “Boardwalk Empire.”
HBO, disputing the account, cited a necropsy report showing the horse had died of natural causes. AHA also called PETA’s account untrue, adding that the horse was 21 years old, was used in a background scene and had not been given any tasks to perform. AHA did not specifically respond to other complaints.
PETA also questioned AHA’s ratings, saying that the 2012 film “Wrath of the Titans” from Warner Bros. initially received an “outstanding” rating even though a horse died while being transported.
An AHA spokesman said the horse died from colic while being transported to the set and received all necessary veterinary care. The group does not have any jurisdiction over incidents that occur off set and based its rating on the fact that all the animal action on the film was performed without incident.