No Animals Were Harmed…?

The people looking out for horses, dogs, and bugs in the movies say so.

A horse broke its neck and died on the set of a Hollywood movie on Monday. Two weeks ago, another horse that was injured on the set was put to sleep. Whose job is it to ensure that no animals are harmed in the making of a film?

The American Humane Association’s Film and Television Unit. The AHA had four animal safety representatives on the set of Flicka, to see that the production of the film met the association’s guidelines for the treatment of animal actors. The AHA’s rules are intended to protect many kinds of animals: When insects are used on a set, for example, “precautions should be taken to minimize the number of bugs flying into the lights.”

The AHA began to monitor the use of animals in film production more than 60 years ago, after a horse was forced to leap to its death from the top of the cliff for a shot in the film Jesse James. In 1980, the association publicized animal cruelty on the set of the mega-flop Heaven’s Gate—where the production crew apparently decapitated chickens, held cockfights, and blew up a horse—which prompted industry groups to strike a deal with the AHA. The Screen Actors Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers agreed that the AHA should oversee the use of animals in films whenever possible.

Since then, any domestic film that operates under SAG rules must be cleared by trained animal safety monitors. The AHA gets to look over scripts, storyboards, and other materials before production gets started, and has unlimited access to the set during scenes involving animals. The association reviews finished products and rates the treatment of animals in each. Film-makers who pass muster get the right to append an AHA-approved disclaimer to their credit sequences. (The AHA first used the phrase “No animals were harmed…” in 1989; a few years ago, it became a registered trademark.)

Not every film gets the disclaimer, and those deemed unacceptable by the AHA can run into problems with distribution. In 1989, the AHA censured James Cameron’s The Abyss for a scene in which one character holds a rat underwater until it begins to struggle. (Their Web site does concede that the rat survived, and that Cameron later took it as his pet.) The scene with the rat was cut from the film before it was distributed in the U.K., in accordance with the Brits’ Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act of 1937, which restricts the exhibition of films for which animals were harmed or goaded to fury.

Domestic films covered under the SAG agreement get animal safety oversight for free, from the guild-sponsored Industry Advancement and Cooperative Fund. International or non-SAG films must pay the association staff members for their time and travel, or they can provide their own oversight. The makers of the Mexican film Amores Perros, which includes several graphic scenes of dog-fighting, included their own unofficial disclaimer on animal cruelty. After production was complete, they sent a video on the making of the film called “The Dogs of Love’s a Bitch” to the AHA. Noting that some of the animal handling violated AHA guidelines, the association assigned the movie a rating of “Questionable.”

Bonus Explainer: So what’s going to happen to the makers of Flicka?The AHA is still investigating, but the Daily News of Los Angeles reported that the film wouldn’t get to use the disclaimer.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Anil Adyanthaya for raising the issue.