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Using animals in films leads to a jungle of issues

Rights groups have taken on trainers who worked on 'Water for Elephants,' 'Zookeeper' for a giraffe's death and 'The Hangover Part II' for not using monitors and depicting a monkey smoking.

August 14, 2011|By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times

But because of its limited resources, the AHA says it is not able to supervise animal activity on every set. When the organization does send out a representative, that individual takes note of a number of different factors, including temperature, noise levels and enclosures. Some of the guidelines — which are laid out in an eight-chapter book — go into extreme detail: "When a weapon is fired from horseback," one rule says, "it shall be held at no less than a 45-degree angle to the horse's head to decrease the risk of powder flashes causing burns to the horse's corneas."

If the filmmakers meet all of the regulations, only then can the famous "No animals were harmed …" disclaimer be used during the end credits of the movie.

"I think there are people who believe animals should not be used in movies, and we have a different point of view," said Jone Bouman, director of communications for the organization. "Animals are part of our lives. They are a part of the stories that filmmakers tell, and if they're not onscreen, we're losing one of the best tools we have to remind people that we share the Earth with other creatures. They just have to be humanely treated."

Periodically, the AHA has faced questions about its ability to independently and thoroughly supervise such a heavy load of productions given its limited funds. The group says it does not have the resources to oversee the treatment of animals by trainers off-set. And that was the issue that arose shortly after the April release of "Water for Elephants," a period romance featuring teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson.

Just as the movie — which got the AHA stamp of approval — hit theaters, a video claiming to be of an elephant used in the film, Tai, began circulating on the Internet; it purported to show the animal being trained with electric shock devices and bull hooks.

The footage, apparently recorded surreptitiously, was released by ADI, which says it has offices in the U.S., Britain and Colombia and employs 28 people. The group devotes most of its time to undercover investigations into animal cruelty; in June, two of its members filed suit against Tai's owners, the Perris, Calif.-based Have Trunk Will Travel. They claim that those who saw the 20th Century Fox film bought tickets under the false impression that the animals in the film weren't harmed.

"The company was making all these false assurances and had duped the actors and moviemakers into making similar assurances to the public that they train with positive reinforcement," said Rossell of ADI. "They were spreading misinformation about the ways the animals were trained that we couldn't overlook."

In a statement, Kari and Gary Johnson, the owners of Have Trunk Will Travel, said they "stand by our care and training methods."

"Animal rights extremist groups are using Tai's role in 'Water for Elephants' as a vehicle to take advantage of her celebrity to further their efforts to remove elephants and all exotic animals from entertainment," the Johnsons added. "These groups have no basis of knowledge or experience working with elephants."

Fox did not respond to a request for comment about the dispute.

Partly as a result of the "Elephants" controversy, the AHA is looking into creating a symposium that would "engage trainers along with the studios and networks about positive training methods," said Bouman.

Incidents on set

But there are even on-set issues that the AHA is not yet able to tackle, such as ensuring access to the sets of U.S. productions abroad. Although the group provides services free domestically, it charges what it describes as a "minimal fee" when representatives are sent to the overseas sets of U.S. productions.

In the case of "The Hangover Part II," the R-rated comedy that has collected nearly $580 million worldwide since opening in May and features a capuchin monkey named Crystal, the AHA says it was not allowed on the film's set in Thailand. Warner Bros., which produced the picture, declined to elaborate upon the decision.

In the film, Crystal the monkey is shown smoking — a scene that enraged PETA. The movie's director, Todd Phillips, said the smoke had been digitally added, but because the film did not have the AHA's stamp of approval, the group was unable to vouch for it.

Yet even movies that do have the association's A-OK have come under fire lately, as with "Zookeeper," a family-friendly comedy with Kevin James about a man who takes care of the animals at his local zoo and discovers he can communicate with them. PETA members were on hand at the "Zookeeper" premiere but with an entirely different attitude than they displayed at the "Apes" event.

Angry activists clustered on the streets of Westwood, issuing fliers to passersby decrying the film for its treatment of an 18-year-old giraffe named Tweet who died on set. The handouts claimed that Tweet suddenly expired, possibly after ingesting a blue tarp that was part of his living quarters.

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