Careless Monitoring Leads To Animal Deaths On Film Set

By Debbie Leahy

The recent deaths of two animals during the filming of 20th Century Fox's remake of "My Friend Flicka," starring country music star Tim McGraw, shows once again that the motion picture industry needs to rethink its use of live animals. On April 11th, a quarter horse broke his back leg while producers were filming a rodeo scene in Simi Valley, Calif, and was destroyed. Another horse died soon after tripping on a rope during filming in San Fernando Valley.

The American Humane Association (AHA), which monitors animals on film sets, has ruled that the deaths of the horses were "unavoidable accidents." But they certainly could have been avoided. Filmmakers don't have to use animals at all. If they are going to include live animals, the AHA and the organization that funds it, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), must push animal trainers and production companies for more accountability. The AHA should further expand monitoring authority to other humane organizations to ensure objectivity.

The Flicka deaths aren't isolated incidents. The AHA has a pattern of defending trainers and attacking witnesses when animals are injured or die on the set or when whistleblowers report mistreatment. Frustrated SAG members have even called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) from film sets to report animal abuse that AHA inspectors have reportedly ignored. Unbelievably, the AHA doesn't even require animal trainers to comply with minimal federal animal welfare laws.

Chimpanzees and orangutans are some of the most used?and abused?animals on movie sets as and in pre-production training sessions. As adults, these great apes are strong and uncontrollable, so trainers take baby primates from their mothers when they are just infants. Common training methods include beatings, use of electric prods and food deprivation.

When these animals reach adolescence, at about eight years, they are often sent to decrepit "sanctuaries" to spend the remainder of their lives?sometimes another four or five decadess?because there is no requirement by the industry that animals used in film, television or advertising be provided with lifetime humane living conditions. PETA has found former "celebrity" chimpanzees living in squalid pens piled with rotting food and trash.

The film industry should require the AHA to take the following steps to change this deplorable situation: require trainers, coordinators, and subcontractors involved in productions using great apes to comply with the Animal Welfare Act; to require trainers to provide a written plan for the permanent care of each great ape they use; to require that chimpanzees and orangutans remain with their mothers for at least the first five years of their lives; to include a "great-ape disclaimer" that would clarify that the AHA does not monitor pre-production training or the living conditions of animals used in film productions; to expand monitoring authority to a PETA representative; and to encourage the film and television industries to use alternatives to great apes and other exotic animals.

Until these simple steps are taken, filmgoers may wish to think twice before going to movies that feature live animals.

Debbie Leahy is Director of Captive Animals and Entertainment Issues for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

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