Many Hollywood action pictures feature animals performing risky stunts, leaving moviegoers to wonder whether the on-screen danger is real or make-believe. And for a decade, audiences have been comforted by the endorsement that appears in the final credits: "No animals were harmed in the making of this film."
A Los Angeles nonprofit group is responsible for monitoring the treatment of animals appearing in domestic productions, from the hairless cat Mr. Bigglesworth in the camp film "Austin Powers II" to cockroaches in "Problem Child II."
"A lot of animals have gone home happy because we were there," says Gini Barrett, director of the American Humane Assn.'s Film and TV Unit.
But an examination of the little-known unit reveals that the group has been slow to criticize cases of animal mistreatment, yet quick to defend the big-budget studios it is supposed to police. It also raises questions about the association's effectiveness.
Interviews and internal documents show that:
* The association Web site gave a "believed acceptable" rating to Walt Disney Co.'s 1999 action flick "The 13th Warrior," even though a horse had to be destroyed after a wire used in one scene sliced through the animal's tendons and an artery. The film did not receive the AHA's on-screen endorsement.
"The leg was . . . just like a plate of chopped liver," said Dorothy Sabey, a Canadian humane official who monitored the filming for the AHA. "It was horrible."
* The "no animals were harmed" seal appeared on New Line Cinema's "Simpatico," despite the death of an old bay quarter horse that ruptured a ligament and staggered to the ground during filming at the Los Alamitos racetrack. The AHA said it was unaware that the film carried its approval.
* The association found no basis for suspicion of horse abuse in 1998 on the set of the CBS television show "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." The program's own producer, however, said she was so alarmed by the treatment of a dozen horses that she fired the show's animal trainer. TV programs do not typically carry AHA's on-screen endorsements.
* Shock collars and BB guns were used to train horses for "Running Free," a Sony Pictures release about wild horses filmed in Namibia. The AHA gave the movie high marks on its Web site without disclosing the controversial training techniques, which the association discourages.
The issue of animal safety in films is more critical than ever, in part because of an explosion in recent years of family and PG-rated movies, many of which make extensive use of animals.
Since 1980, a clause in the Screen Actors Guild contract with producers has granted sole authority for monitoring the treatment of animals in movies, television shows, commercials and music videos to the AHA's Film and TV Unit. The agreement covers most significant productions in the U.S.
But the unit, the interviews and internal documents show, lacks any meaningful enforcement power under the SAG contract, depends on major studios to pay for its operations and is rife with conflicts of interest.
The unit's director, Barrett, 55, served as a senior vice president and head of the political action committee for the powerful Alliance for Motion Picture and Television Producers before becoming director of the AHA film unit in 1997. Despite her ties to the industry, Barrett said, she has not been afraid to take on Hollywood producers.
"We have accomplished a great deal, worked on an awful lot of productions [and] solved a lot of problems," said Barrett, the wife of former Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz.
Barrett has been accused by her own staff of interfering with animal welfare probes that could prove embarrassing to filmmakers and studios. In addition, a confidential inquiry found Barrett was aware that a former AHA attorney in charge of field investigations in 1999 dated two trainers whose animal compounds she was assigned to oversee.
The AHA filed a lawsuit last month seeking to prevent the Los Angeles Times from publishing this article because it might include information from the confidential report, a document written by the AHA's law firm. On Jan. 25, Superior Court Judge Dzintra I. Janavs denied the group's motion.
Top AHA officials said they are proud of the film unit's work and that Barrett enjoys their full support.
"I think we do a good job, a very good job. I don't think we're compromising the safety of animals at all," said AHA President Timothy O'Brien.
Barrett, a former Los Angeles animal regulation commissioner, has announced she will leave her $108,000-a-year post by the end of this month to tend to her own business affairs. Her replacement is Karen F. Goschen, AHA's chief financial officer.
The AHA also receives wide praise from Hollywood producers and directors for not only looking after the safety of animals, but cast members as well.
"They provide a service to this industry that is extremely important," said J. Nicholas Counter, head of the Alliance for Motion Picture and Television Producers.