American Humane Association monitor Gina Johnson confided in an email to a colleague on April 7, 2011, about the star tiger in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. While many scenes featuring “Richard Parker,” the Bengal tiger who shares a lifeboat with a boy lost at sea, were created using CGI technology, King, very much a real animal, was employed when the digital version wouldn’t suffice. “This one take with him just went really bad and he got lost trying to swim to the side,” Johnson wrote. “Damn near drowned.”
King’s trainer eventually snagged him with a catch rope and dragged him to one side of the tank, where he scrambled out to safety.
“I think this goes without saying but DON’T MENTION IT TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY THE OFFICE!” Johnson continued in the email, obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. “I have downplayed the f— out of it.”
As a representative of the American Humane Association — the grantor of the familiar “No Animals Were Harmed” trademark accreditation seen at the end of film and TV credits — it was Johnson’s job to monitor the welfare of the animals used in the production filmed in Taiwan. What’s more, Johnson had a secret: She was intimately involved with a high-ranking production exec on Pi. (AHA’s management subsequently became aware of both the relationship and her email about the tiger incident, which others involved with the production have described in far less dire terms.) Still, Pi, which went on to earn four Oscars and $609 million in global box office, was awarded the “No Animals Were Harmed” credit.
A year later, during the filming of another blockbuster, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 27 animals reportedly perished, including sheep and goats that died from dehydration and exhaustion or from drowning in water-filled gullies, during a hiatus in filming at an unmonitored New Zealand farm where they were being housed and trained.
A trainer, John Smythe, tells THR that AHA’s management, which assigned a representative to the production, resisted investigating when he brought the issue to its attention in August 2012. First, according to an email Smythe shared with THR, an AHA official told him the lack of physical evidence would make it difficult to investigate. When he replied that he had buried the animals himself and knew their location, the official then told him that because the deaths had taken place during the hiatus, the AHA had no jurisdiction. The AHA eventually bestowed a carefully worded credit that noted it “monitored all of the significant animal action. No animals were harmed during such action.”
A THR investigation has found that, unbeknownst to the public, these incidents on Hollywood’s most prominent productions are but two of the troubling cases of animal injury and death that directly call into question the 136-year-old Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit’s assertion that “No Animals Were Harmed” on productions it monitors.
Alarmingly, it turns out that audiences reassured by the organization’s famous disclaimer should not necessarily assume it is true. In fact, the AHA has awarded its “No Animals Were Harmed” credit to films and TV shows on which animals were injured during production. It justifies this on the grounds that the animals weren’t intentionally harmed or the incidents occurred while cameras weren’t rolling.
The full scope of animal injuries and deaths in entertainment productions cannot be known. But in multiple cases examined by THR, the AHA has not lived up to its professed role as stalwart defenders of animals — who, unlike their human counterparts, didn’t themselves sign up for such work. While the four horse deaths on HBO’s Luck made headlines last year, there are many extraordinary incidents that never bubble up to make news.
And the list goes on: An elderly giraffe died on Sony’s 2011 Zookeeper set and dogs suffering from bloat and cancer died during the production of New Regency’s Marmaduke and The Weinstein Co.’s Our Idiot Brother, respectively (an AHA spokesman confirms the dogs had bloat and says the cancer “was not work-related”).
In March, a 5-foot-long shark died after being placed in a small inflatable pool during a Kmart commercial shoot in Van Nuys.A Husky dog was punched repeatedly in its diaphragm on Disney’s 2006 Antarctic sledding movie Eight Below, starring Paul Walker, and a chipmunk was fatally squashed in Paramount’s 2006 Matthew McConaughey-Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy Failure to Launch.
In 2003, the AHA chose not to publicly speak of the dozens of dead fish and squid that washed up on shore over four days during the filming of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Crew members had taken no precautions to protect marine life when they set off special-effects explosions in the ocean, according to the AHA rep on set.
All of these productions had AHA monitors on set.