Are the Oscars Celebrating Animal Cruelty?

Posted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on February 23, 2013

(Photo by Ebb and Flow Photography)

Everyone is excited for the Academy Awards ceremony this Sunday. The gala event is often enjoyed by even the crankiest of critics, for the celebration of cinematic storytelling is hard to resist. Yet, although I attended film school and passionately taught college-level film courses for years, I’ve always been disturbed by the use of animals in film. This year’s Oscars highlight the reason why.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been nominated for three awards:

  • BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
  • BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
  • BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING

As the end-credits roll, the familiar disclaimer appears, "No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Film." But 27 animals were killed in the making of this film. As the Associated Press reported, three horses, six goats, six sheep, and a dozen chickens died at the New Zealand ranch, where they were housed while production continued. Yet, the American Humane Association (AHA)–the only industry body that certifies the humane care of animals in Screen Actors Guild films–gave its approval.

The deaths were attributed to dangerous conditions such as "bluffs, sinkholes and jagged fencing," according to wranglers at the ranch. A mini pony named Rainbow broke his back and suffered overnight before being found and euthanized. A horse named Claire fell off a bluff, and chickens were torn apart by dogs, say the wranglers. Other horses were injured by fencing. The wranglers say they repeatedly alerted the production company to alert them to the abuse. But media reports suggest that while film executives admit two horses died preventable deaths, they say there was no wrongdoing, and instead questioned the credibility of the wranglers, who were dismissed after reporting the animal abuse.

(Photo by Nico Deaux)

Whatever the truth is, we must ask ourselves: what happens when the cameras stop rolling? Humane care of animals must not boil down to semantics. Common sense tells us that "no animals were harmed in the making of the film" means just that. But the AHA only observes the humane care of animals on the set.

How would audiences feel if, at the end of a film like The Hobbit, AHA’s end-statement said: "no animals were documented as being harmed on the set, to our knowledge, but many were killed off the set…"? Perhaps far greater care would be afforded to protect animals during filming; perhaps the use of live animals would be replaced with CGI. Perhaps films that kill dozens of animals wouldn’t receive acclaim from the academy. Perhaps audiences would be outraged.

Enormous amounts of money are invested in getting shots right, and the pressure for animals to perform on cue is high. The Hobbit, for example, is the first in a $500 million dollar trilogy. Are we to trust that filmmakers properly care for their money-makers under these conditions? Some media sources report that Peter Jackson, director of The Hobbit, who has denied that animals were mistreated during the production of his film, called an animal protection organization "pretty pathetic" for its concern with the deaths of animals in this film.

If we can’t trust filmmakers, can we rely upon the American Humane Association? As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the AHA has called the cruelty behind the scenes of The Hobbit "unacceptable." In its own guidelines the AHA announces it is the only group "able to document a production’s humane care of animals." The problem is: how much do they document if they can’t supervise off-set care?

This award is given to people who fight animal cruelty, click on the image to learn more.

The AHA needs clearer guidelines, broader authority, better enforcement, access to off-set care, and full disclosure in its "no animals were harmed" program. The public demands it, and animals deserve it. If its statements are to honestly reflect the well-being of animals, it needs this authority, at minimum.

The animal cruelty behind the scenes of The Hobbit is by no means an anomaly in the film world. Countless animals are harmed in the making of many films. And Buzkashi Boys–a movie that features the Afghani national sport of Buzkashi, a brutal game of horse polo played by dragging about a dead goat, is up for an Oscar for best short film.

Where do we draw the line between telling masterful cinematic stories–and exploiting animals for our own amusement? "No animals were harmed" must mean exactly that.

Animals don’t deserve to die for our entertainment.

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2 thoughts on “Are the Oscars Celebrating Animal Cruelty?

  1. Laurie Hammeke says:

    Thank you so much for making me away of this situation. I will definitely pass the information on. Makes me so sad!!

  2. Morgan MacMurchie says:

    Perhaps the film industry should tell the truth about poor animals being abused.I love animals a lot.