Written by: Heather Clemenceau
Most of us believe animals in movies are protected from abuse, injury, and death. The Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) requires that any motion picture which engages SAG actors also must engage the American Humane Association, the group that allows producers to use the “No Animals Were Harmed”® end-credit certification to productions that meet its standard of care for animal actors. The AHA protection is supposed to cover large animals, as well as fish, birds, and reptiles. On the set, AHA’s Certified Animal Safety Representatives are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the guidelines are upheld. AHA’s oversight includes film, television, commercials, music videos, and Internet productions.
No Animals Were Harmed® Certification Program
“American Humane Association monitors animals in filmed media and holds the exclusive right to award its “No Animals Were Harmed”® end-credit certification to productions that meet its rigorous standard of care for animal actors. American Humane Association works with production personnel and trainers in the pre-production planning stage, monitors the animals on set during production, and enforces American Humane Association’s Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media. It also investigates allegations of mistreatment and cruelty and sanctions productions that do not meet its standards of humane animal treatment. American Humane Association currently monitors 70 percent of known animal action in film and television productions. This amounts to approximately 2,000 productions annually, where Certified Animal Safety Representatives™ combine animal welfare and behavioral expertise to care for animal actors and protect their interests.”
The AHA provides the following ratings for films under their oversight.
Outstanding – AHA determined the film met or exceeded their Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media and is awarded the end credit disclaimer “No Animals Were Harmed®.”
Acceptable – Significant compliance with their protocols and filmmakers who cooperated with the process.
Special Circumstances – Production followed the guidelines and cooperated, however an accident, injury, or death occurred which involved an animal.
Unacceptable – Filmmakers failed to adhere to AHA protocols and disregarded safety protocols leading to injury or death of an animal.
Not Monitored: Production Compliant – The production was not monitored however a script and relevant animal scheduling information and pre-release screening of the film were provided to the AHA.
Not Monitored – Filmmakers did not request monitoring, therefore the AHA was unaware whether guidelines were followed.
The AHA Film Unit is not without controversy, as it has been claimed that they are slow to criticize cases of animal mistreatment, yet quick to defend the big-budget studios it is supposed to police, and that an examination of the association also raises questions about the association’s effectiveness. Audiences who are reassured by the organization’s famous disclaimer should not necessarily assume it is true. In actuality, the presence of the AHA provides us with a false sense of comfort and a very different reality. In fact, the AHA has awarded its “No Animals Were Harmed®” credit to films and TV shows on which animals were injured or even killed during production. It justifies this on the grounds that the animals weren’t intentionally harmed or the incidents occurred while cameras weren’t rolling. For instance, the AHA does not monitor living conditions of animals off set, during hiatus, or during pre-production, which means there may never be any justice for any animal frivolously killed off-set for, of all things, a movie prop. And if animals were killed elsewhere to become props in a film, does that mean the film can still receive the accreditation that “No Animals Were Harmed®?” Regardless, how can it possibly be ethical to kill animals in an attempt to capture reality for a film?
“The Solutrean,” an ice age survival story set in the upper Paleolithic period, is currently in production in Alberta, and Vancouver as well as Iceland. Recently, at least 3 bison were allegedly killed with high-powered rifles, their hides were partially stripped, and they were shipped to the set so that the actors could appear to be skinning them. One might think that the re-creation of actors killing an animal for a pre-historic scene would be a project that is easily replicated by Hollywood special effects craftspersons. But since Alberta is a province that revels in a ready supply of animals for the movie industry, I suspect this will simply be another example whereby entertainment trumps ethics.
Will the AHA do with this film what they did for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, where almost 30 animals died, including sheep and goats that died from dehydration and exhaustion or from drowning during a hiatus in filming at an unmonitored New Zealand farm where they were being housed and trained, and bestow a carefully worded credit noting that it “monitored all of the significant animal action. No animals were harmed during such action?”
So who are the stalwart defenders of animals in movies – who, unlike their human counterparts, didn’t themselves sign up for such work? As nebulous as they are, the AHA guidelines are not in force in Canada, even though a production may be filmed in Canada with actors from the SAG. Canadian producers who use animals in their films have a variety of different legal obligations with which they must contend, ranging from contractual to regulatory to criminal. In Canada, we need to look to the Criminal Code and the Health of Animals Act for a legal framework. After that, the issue of animal treatment tends to be addressed by provincial and municipal-level laws and voluntary guidelines.
What happened to these bison was not a tragic, unpreventable accident. As long as there is an organization purporting to protect animals that’s intimidated by powerful filmmakers, the animals are always going to lose. IMO, the ratings system is bogus – either animals were harmed or they were not.
American Humane Association
Film & Television Office
11530 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City, CA 91604