109 Years of Mistreating Animals in Film
It’s being reported that almost 30 animals died on the farm facility during the making of The Hobbit trilogy, due to “death trap” features on set, like “bluffs, sinkholes and broken-down fencing” which caused the horses to break their backs, cut their legs, fall into streams, and have digestive problems. But this isn’t new! The film industry has been torturing animals for more than 100 years. (And in related news, Rihanna doesn’t treat her crew much better.)
This whole thing kind of started in 1903 with Thomas Edison’s 1903 short “Electrocuting An Elephant,” which chronicled the story of Topsy, a circus elephant on Coney Island’s Luna Park. After killing 3 men in 3 years, Topsy was seen as a threat (her actions were likely prompted by the fact she was mistreated to begin with—one of Topy’s trainers tried to feed her a lit cigarette) so it was decided that Topsy would be executed via hanging. Edison wanted the elephant to be electrocuted instead, a suggest that seems to be supportive of his own high-voltage direct-current system. He looped the execution onto his short film that was essentially animal torture for entertaining the masses.
In the 1939 film “Jesse James,” a horse died after being run off a seventy-foot cliff that dropped into a river. The horse died, and people got mad enough that the American Humane Association (AHA) was formed as a result, a group that stands up for animal rights in film today. (Though sometimes, like in the case of “The Hangover II”, the AHA is not allowed on set, which obviously thwarts them from monitoring the treatment of animals during shooting.)
They’re doing an okay job. If they were doing a great job, this wouldn’t have happened—in 1979’s “Apocalypse Now,” a water buffalo was hacked to death on film. It was argued that the animal had already been marked for ritual sacrifice by the indigenous tribe cast in the flick, and that the animal would have died anyway. Whatever helps you sleep at night, Francis Ford Coppola.
There have been serious concerns about animal welfare in films more recent. In 1989, people wondered why in “The Adventure of Milo And Otis” more than 20 kittens were killed, and one kitten’s paw was intentionally broken to make it appear unsteady on its feet. Disney’s 2008 “Snow Buddies” sure sounds sweet, but five puppies died on set when Disney unknowingly used underage and ill pups during production. Several more diseased puppies had to be put down. During the production of “Flicka” in 2006, two horses died on set. The film production company was not blamed, but you will notice the lack of the AHA’s “no animals were harmed in the making of this film” disclaimer.
In 2010, “Water for Elephants” caused quite a stir when footage provided by Animal Defenders International displayed elephants being beaten with bull hooks and receiving electric shocks by trainers from the company Have Trunk Will Travel. The AHA (and Reese Witherspoon, guys) promised the animals were treated correctly on set, which doesn’t mean the animals were not abused in training. Have Trunk Will Travel also experienced backlash in 2009 with Adam Sandler’s “Zookeeper,” when footage was found of trainers abusing an elephant. Also on the set of “Zookeeper,” Tweet, a giraffe, collapsed and died on set during production.
That’s not to say that animal treatment on film is always done unethically. Steven Spielberg’s “Warhorse” was an example of an animal flick that avoided harming animals... primarily because the horses were computer-generated—smooth move, Spielberg. And 2010’s “True Grit” is being praised by the AHA for adhering to the guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media. It can be done.
But as John Waters said after receiving criticism for killing a chicken in his 1972 movie “Pink Flamingos,” “I eat chicken, and I know the chicken didn’t land on my plate from a heart attack. We bought the chicken from a farmer who advertised freshly killed chicken. I think we made the chicken’s life better. It got to be in a movie, and right after filming the next take, the cast ate the chicken.” So if you’re not a vegetarian, is it okay to get your tightie whities in a twist for watching animals killed on film? You tell us, Sparklers.
And if all of this makes you too upset for words, volunteer with or donate to one of these 73 animal rights organizations.