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Protecting Animal Actors

By: Alex Lieber

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At the end of a movie, television program or even a commercial, you may see the "No animals were harmed" credit, which is issued only by the American Humane Association. The credit is common today in Hollywood, but a tragic history lies behind it.

Since 1877, the American Humane Association has fought for animal welfare. But it had little power when it came to the filming of animals. That changed in 1939, with a film called "Jesse James." In the movie (starring Henry Fonda and Randolph Scott), a horse and rider jumped off a cliff into a rushing river. In the next scene, Fonda and a horse are seen swimming in the water.

But in reality, that scene cost that particular horse his life. The horse was forced onto a slippery platform called a "tilt shute," which was tilted up to force the horse to slip off the cliff. This was just one of many cruel devices used to force animals to fall for the sake of entertainment.

Reforming the Industry

Public outrage erupted, prompting the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to take action. The organization gave the American Humane Association legal rights to set guidelines and oversee the treatment of animals on the set of movies and, later on, television programs.

At the time, the MPAA was quite powerful. The organization had been created to essentially censor movies before the government stepped in to do so. Under the conservative Will Hays, the association's president, the organization wouldn't allow even the hint that married people slept together (their bedrooms showed separate beds, for instance). In addition, actors and actresses were forced to include "morality clauses" in their contracts.

His influence was such that the movie organization was called the Hays Office. The organization's power was broken in 1966, when the Supreme Court ruled that the office was in effect practicing censorship. (Incidentally, that year the association introduced the rating system.)

Unfortunately, the ruling meant that production sets no longer had to abide by the regulations protecting animals on movie sets. From 1966 to 1980, the AHA tried to ensure ethical treatment of animals, but it was a losing battle. Film companies simply refused to allow them on the sets.

Once again, abuses occurred. Animals were overworked and kept in unsafe conditions, and devices to show realistic scenes of animals falling returned. For instance, one of the more common methods to show a horse falling was the trip wire: a horse's ankles were cuffed with a wire leading to the rider. On cue, the rider pulled the wire, which swept the legs out from under the horse, which fell head first and was often injured.

Taking a Stand

Ironically, it took the death of another horse to spur reform. In the 1979 movie Heaven's Gate, there's a scene showing a saddle being blown from a horse. According to Karen Rosa, a spokeswoman for the AHA, explosives were apparently placed underneath the saddle. Not surprisingly, the blast severely injured the horse, which had to be euthanized.

The movie (which, incidentally, failed at the box office and was pulled within days from theaters) also featured staged cockfights and other acts of cruelty to animals. The toll on animals distressed many actors. The Screen Actors Guild insisted on reinstating the American Humane Association's power. In 1980, the Motion Picture Association granted the AHA sole authority to protect animals used in film and television through a contract with the Screen Actors Guild.

The Basics

Although its guidelines are quite detailed, the AHA follows four basic principals:

  • No animal will be killed or injured for the sake of a film production.

  • If an animal must be treated inhumanely to perform, then that animal should not be used.

  • Animals are not props. If an animal is used off-camera as background or to attract the attention of an animal being filmed, the same humane guidelines must apply to that animal.

  • "Animal" means all sentient creatures, including birds, fish, reptiles and insects.

    The AHA reviews scripts and works with animal trainers months before filming begins. All actions involving animals are carefully analyzed, from the stunts to the lighting and camera angles, to ensure the animals are not at risk. The housing and care facilities are inspected as well.

    During filming, representatives of the AHA are often on the scene, inspecting the props and sets for safety. Afterwards, the AHA publishes reviews to describe exactly how the animal action was done and rates the movie as acceptable, believed acceptable, questionable, unknown and unacceptable.

  • Acceptable movies are given the familiar "No animals were harmed" credit seen at the end of many movies and television programs. This means a representative from the AHA supervised the action on the set.

  • Believed acceptable ratings are given when the AHA has reviewed scripts and consulted with trainers and the producers, but for some reason was not on the production set. (For instance, scenes that only show an animal walking from point A to point B do not necessarily require the AHA's presence).

  • Questionable ratings are given when no animals were intentionally harmed in the making of the film, but some questionable practices were used.

  • Unknown means the AHA was not on the set and was not able to obtain or substantiate information on animal actions.

  • Unacceptable indicates that deliberate cruelty has occurred on the set.

    A category known as acceptable/unacceptable is also occasionally used. The movie Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco was given this designation because most of the animal actions followed the AHA's guidelines. However, according to the AHA, a number of fish were not properly cared for and died as a result. The dog and cat action is rated acceptable but the fish action was rated as unacceptable.

    Other movies rated unacceptable include: Apocalypse Now, Bad City Blues, Conan the Barbarian (and the sequel, Conan the Destroyer), First Blood, Rambo III, the 1989 adaptation of Lord of the Flies, and The Abyss.

    Great strides have been made to protect animal actors in the United States, but what about films shot around the world, where philosophies and standards are different? The AHA is organizing an International Humane Partnership Program to uphold ethical standards elsewhere, but the effort is still in its early stages.

    To learn the ratings of a particular movie, you can log onto the AHA's Web site at www.ahafilm.org. An alphabetized list is provided, along with an explanation of the animal action that earned a particular rating.

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