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American Humane Assn. seeks broader authority outside the set

By: Cynthia Littleton | December 13, 2013

American Humane Assn. seeks broader authority outside the set

The nonprofit org tasked with ensuring the safety of animals used in film and TV productions is asking the industry to step up with more funding to expand its monitoring efforts.

Two unsettling incidents this year have brought the issue of animal welfare on sets into sharp focus. The deaths of three horses involved in the filming of HBO's "Luck" shocked bizzers and led to the drama's cancellation in March. In November, there was dismay at reports of deaths and dangerous conditions on the New Zealand farm housing many of the animals featured in The Hobbit: The Extraordinary Journey.

The American Humane Assn. aims to channel the outrage stirred by the "Luck" and Hobbit headlines into increased funding for its on-set oversight program and an expansion of its jurisdiction to include the housing and training facilities for animals while they're engaged in filming.

AHA leaders are planning to host a summit in April with key production players at its Studio City office. Later in the year, the AHA intends to convene a larger conference to educate bizzers on safety concerns and other issues for animal thesps.

"Our jurisdiction is limited," said AHA prexy-CEO Robin Ganzert. "That's led to a lot of confusion in the industry about our role. The problems during production of The Hobbit and other productions that have preceded it should serve as a wake-up call to the industry that we must act now."

Helmer Peter Jackson and other Hobbit producers have emphasized that the problems occurred on a farm far removed from the production site. At the request of Hobbit producers, an AHA rep visited the farm in late 2011 and made recommendations for improving conditions that were funded by the production.

"We're calling on the industry to have a stronger dialogue about how we can implement enhanced productions for animal actors," Ganzert said. "We need to have the conversation about what happens outside the set."

Org leaders say they are developing proposals for generating new forms of funding from the industry. At present, about half of the Washington, D.C.-based AHA's roughly $4 million annual operating budget comes from grants provided by SAG-AFTRA. The coin comes from the union's Industry Advancement and Cooperative Fund, which is funded by contributions from producers based on a percentage of the total compensation paid annually to SAG-AFTRA members.

Higher contributions may be a hard sell to the majors, even if they are eager to avoid PR headaches. The org is actively drumming up support among creatives including helmer Jon Turteltaub and Life of Pi producer Gil Netter.

AHA monitoring "serves to alleviate fears that we might be hurting an innocent life while on set," Turteltaub said. "An animal actor's safety is just as important off set as it is on."

AHA reps spent months in Taiwan with Netter and helmer Ang Lee during the lensing of Pi, in which animals play central roles.

"On Pi we built our facilities with the input of the (AHA) and the Taipei zoo," said Netter, who also worked extensively with animals on 2011's Water for Elephants. "Having someone on set is an asset to help make sure I can make the animals as safe as possible."

Support in the creative community has historically been crucial for the AHA. More than 30 years ago, the org's SAG-AFTRA funding was secured as part of the unions' 1980 contract negotiations with the majors. The move was spurred by the reaction of many thesps to reports of gross mistreatment of animals, including the deaths of four horses, during the filming of Michael Cimino's epic oater Heaven's Gate.

A generation later, the "Luck" and Hobbit incidents could be the galvanizing events that drive a new wave of support for the AHA's mission.

"Nobody goes into a shoot with the intention of harming an animal," said Karen Rosa, a veteran staffer with the AHA's film and TV unit. "But there are thousands of things to focus on when you're putting a show or a movie together. Our focus is only on the animals and their welfare. There are currently more productions using animals than at any (other) time in history. It's very challenging for us to cover all of this work and ensure that these animals are treated with a very high standard of care."

The AHA, founded in 1877 as an advocacy org for children and animals, was first tapped to police Hollywood film sets in 1940 by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Assn., a forerunner of the MPAA. The studios recruited the AHA after an outcry about a horse being forced to jump off a cliff to its death during the lensing of the 1939 Henry Fonda drama Jesse James.

Compliance with the AHA's rules was incorporated into the Production Code, aka the Hays Code. When the Hays Code was scuttled in 1966, the AHA lost much of its authority, although many producers continued to work with the org. It wasn't until the reports of excesses during the filming of Heaven's Gate -- including a scene where an explosive was rigged under a horse's saddle, forcing it to be euthanized later -- that the AHA's jurisdiction was again contractually stipulated.

Through affiliation with SAG-AFTRA, union productions are required to notify the AHA when they plan to film with animals. The org's staff then reviews the shooting script and evaluates the intensity of the proposed animal activity. That allows the AHA to prioritize the days that its reps should be on the set to enforce the org's guidelines -- and head off potential conflicts by working in advance with trainers and producers.

The AHA has eight full-time set reps and 29 trained monitors on call throughout the country, as well as in Canada, Sweden and New Zealand. In recent years, the org has covered more than 2,000 productions annually, with on-set monitors overseeing about 64% of the shooting days involving animals. Its "No Animals Were Harmed" certification is issued to productions that meet its highest standards. Quentin Tarantino was so eager to show off his compliance on Django Unchained that he put the certification at the top of the pic's end credits.

With next year's summit and conference, the AHA aims to harness its marquee supporters to aid its expansion efforts.

"We don't think producers understand what it takes to run this program, and that our (industry) funding covers less than half of the cost," Rosa said. "When accidents happen, it highlights how much more we need to do."

Contact Cynthia Littleton at

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