Playing Defense: Humane Association Tackles an Investigative Exposé

With a new report in The Hollywood Reporter putting its "No Animals Were Harmed" campaign under the microscope, the American Humane Association put its efforts into a comprehensive response.

An in-depth report in The Hollywood Reporter has put the Humane Association’s renowned No Animals Were Harmed program for the film industry under the microscope. The group’s comprehensive response could be a model for other associations facing media criticism.

It’s a situation few associations would envy—a well-known newspaper publishes a long-form exposé sticking pins into one of your most famous initiatives. But that’s what the American Humane Association (AHA) found itself facing this week.

The Hollywood Reporter published a long-form investigative report looking into the association’s “No Animals Were Harmed” accreditation program for the film industry. The long list of failings and incidents it revealed has called the integrity of the program and its trademarked credit into question.

AHA’s response, both noting the program’s shortcomings and emphasizing its strengths, could serve as a good example for associations similarly under fire.

Over a span of many years, despite our best efforts, there have occasionally been rare accidents, most of them minor and not intentional.

About the Program

For more than 70 years, the American Humane Association has led efforts to ensure that the entertainment industry treats animals humanely. The death of a horse after a 70-foot cliff dive during filming of the 1939 movie Jesse James sparked a protest by the organization, and it monitored the treatment of animals on set until the Motion Picture Production Code was abandoned in the late 1960s. Looser rules followed, but the need for monitoring was reinforced by the violent cockfighting and disemboweling of cows in the infamous 1980 flop Heaven’s Gate, and the AHA has been active in ensuring the safety of animals and proper practices by filmmakers.

In 1989, the association launched its current program, which provides monitoring and allows the use of the well-known (and later trademarked) “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer in the end credits. (Somewhat ironically, one of the first films to receive the distinction was an adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, which came out in January of that year.) The association claims a 99.98 percent safety record for animals on set.

The Allegations

The Hollywood Reporter article makes the case that AHA’s cozy relationship with the film industry has led to a lack of action, even in clear cases of animal mistreatment and death. Among its allegations:

A tiger nearly drowned on the set of the Life of Pi, and the animal monitor in charge of the film attempted to hide the incident from her superiors, who eventually found out. AHA officials say that it was a “close call,” but no harm ultimately came to the animal.

More than two dozen animals died on a New Zealand farm where they were housed during a break in filming The Hobbit trilogy. Some died of exhaustion or dehydration; others drowned. (Associations Now covered this story last year.)

Two horses died during the production of the 2005 film Flicka, and a law enforcement official claims to have received an icy response from AHA monitors. The film was not allowed to use the No Animals Were Harmed disclaimer but used other language instead: “American Humane Association monitored the animal action.”

The deaths of multiple horses led HBO to end the production of Luck (a show about horse racing). The program’s former head of production filed a lawsuit, saying she was fired after complaining about animal mistreatment and claiming that the association yielded to pressure from producers.

The article includes many other similar examples.

An Honest Response

After the article was published, the AHA took to its blog to offer a rebuttal—though it admitted the No Animals Were Harmed program has had its failings.

“Over a span of many years, despite our best efforts, there have occasionally been rare accidents, most of them minor and not intentional,” the association said. “Regrettably, there have even been some deaths, which upset us greatly, but in many of the cases reported, they had nothing to do with the animals’ treatment on set, or occurred when the animals were not under our care.”

However, AHA took issue with a number of the article’s claims, noting that while a dog did die of cancer on the Our Idiot Brother set, it was of natural causes that were unrelated to filming. The animal deaths associated with War Horse and The Hobbit did not take place while they were under AHA’s authority, it noted, adding that in the case of War Horse, the death was of natural causes.

That said, the association stated that it conducted a full audit of the program in 2011 and 2012 and that it has added new elements, such as having third-party investigations in any case of an animal injury or death on set and hiring licensed veterinarians to monitor safety on set. It is also placing its “Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media” [PDF]—a key industry document—under review to help ensure high standards.

“American Humane Association has made tough changes to ensure that the No Animals Were Harmed program is structured to meet the humane charter with which we have been entrusted,” the association stated.

When caught on the defensive, what techniques have you used to make an effective response? Let us know in the comments.

One of the lead allegations in The Hollywood Reporter's investigation suggested that the tiger in "Life of Pi" nearly drowned. (20th Century Fox)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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