The Hollywood Reporter has a long, stunning investigative article out today called “Animals Were Harmed.” THR journalist Gary Baum presents compelling evidence that the American Humane Association, the nonprofit organization charged with monitoring film and TV productions for animal abuse, has systematically hidden animal deaths in the interest of preserving friendly relations with powerful Hollywood producers.
The deaths of three horses on the set of HBO’s horse racing series Luck—which was overseen by the AHA—are well known (and probably contributed to Luck’s cancellation), but the stomach-turning incidents go far beyond Luck: There’s the dog that was punched by its trainer on the set of Eight Below, the chipmunk that was dropped and stepped on by its handler during the filming of Failure to Launch, and the dozens of sheep and goats that died during a hiatus in the filming of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The AHA, which receives most of its funding from industry groups, excused these and other incidents by saying that they were unintentional, or that because they happened off-camera, they don’t count. Most of Baum’s sources are anonymous, but there are a few jaw-droppingly wrongheaded quotes, like this one:
In an interview with THR, Candy Spelling, a national AHA board member, defends the organization’s intent behind the “No Animals Were Harmed” end credit. “I think what people think [it means] is that when a horse dies in the movies, it didn’t really die,” she says. “I think that people think [the AHA’s monitoring] is just when the cameras are rolling.”
Right. No one cares if you punch, step on, or starve animals as long as there’s no camera turned on nearby. If that’s the best defense the AHA can come up with, I hope the Department of Agriculture, the governmental agency usually tasked with protecting animals from neglect and abuse, begins sending agents to Hollywood very, very soon. Baum’s article is the kind of public interest journalism that ought to result in policy changes, and the entire thing is worth reading.
Of course, while the AHA’s hypocrisy is sickening, there is another, bigger hypocrisy in play. As my colleague Forrest Wickman wrote after the death of Luck’s horses became known, “What makes the suffering of animals in the service of making television so much worse than the suffering of animals in the service of making steak or scrambled eggs?” The USDA is responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, which applies to “certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially or exhibited to the public” but “excludes those animals raised for food or fiber.” Animals in the latter group are generally treated far worse than animals in Hollywood films, and the USDA condones nightmarish conditions on factory farms. Granted, the USDA’s jurisdiction merely reflects popular beliefs: that some animals (like dogs, horses, and chipmunks) are our friends, while others (like pigs, cattle, and chickens) are not. The Hollywood Reporter has uncovered a major scandal. Perhaps someday the abuse of livestock will be considered a scandal, too.