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Hollywood animals { February 9 2001 }


Friday, February 9, 2001

Questions Raised About Group That Watches Out for Animals in Movies


Many Hollywood action pictures feature animals performing risky stunts, leaving
moviegoers to wonder whether the on-screen danger is real or make-believe. And for
a decade, audiences have been comforted by the endorsement that appears in the final
credits: "No animals were harmed in the making of this film."
A Los Angeles nonprofit group is responsible for monitoring the treatment of animals
appearing in domestic productions, from the hairless cat Mr. Bigglesworth in the camp film
"Austin Powers II" to cockroaches in "Problem Child II."
"A lot of animals have gone home happy because we were there," says Gini Barrett,
director of the American Humane Assn.'s Film and TV Unit.
But an examination of the little-known unit reveals that the group has been slow to criticize
cases of animal mistreatment, yet quick to defend the big-budget studios it is supposed to
police. It also raises questions about the association's effectiveness.
Interviews and internal documents show that:
* The association Web site gave a "believed acceptable" rating to Walt Disney
Co.'s 1999 action flick "The 13th Warrior," even though a horse had to be destroyed after a
wire used in one scene sliced through the animal's tendons and an artery. The film did not
receive the AHA's on-screen endorsement.
"The leg was . . . just like a plate of chopped liver," said Dorothy Sabey, a Canadian
humane official who monitored the filming for the AHA. "It was horrible."
* The "no animals were harmed" seal appeared on New Line Cinema's "Simpatico,"
despite the death of an old bay quarter horse that ruptured a ligament and staggered to the
ground during filming at the Los Alamitos racetrack. The AHA said it was unaware that the
film carried its approval.
* The association found no basis for suspicion of horse abuse in 1998 on the set of
the CBS television show "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman." The program's own
producer, however, said she was so alarmed by the treatment of a dozen horses that she fired
the show's animal trainer. TV programs do not typically carry AHA's on-screen
* Shock collars and BB guns were used to train horses for "Running Free," a Sony
Pictures release about wild horses filmed in Namibia. The AHA gave the movie high marks
on its Web site without disclosing the controversial training techniques, which the association
The issue of animal safety in films is more critical than ever, in part because of an explosion
in recent years of family and PG-rated movies, many of which make extensive use of animals.

Sole Authority
Since 1980, a clause in the Screen Actors Guild contract with producers has granted sole
authority for monitoring the treatment of animals in movies, television shows, commercials and
music videos to the AHA's Film and TV Unit. The agreement covers most significant
productions in the U.S.
But the unit, the interviews and internal documents show, lacks any meaningful
enforcement power under the SAG contract, depends on major studios to pay for its
operations and is rife with conflicts of interest.
The unit's director, Barrett, 55, served as a senior vice president and head of the political
action committee for the powerful Alliance for Motion Picture and Television Producers
before becoming director of the AHA film unit in 1997. Despite her ties to the industry,
Barrett said, she has not been afraid to take on Hollywood producers.
"We have accomplished a great deal, worked on an awful lot of productions [and] solved
a lot of problems," said Barrett, the wife of former Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz.
Barrett has been accused by her own staff of interfering with animal welfare probes that
could prove embarrassing to filmmakers and studios. In addition, a confidential inquiry found
Barrett was aware that a former AHA attorney in charge of field investigations in 1999 dated
two trainers whose animal compounds she was assigned to oversee.
The AHA filed a lawsuit last month seeking to prevent the Los Angeles Times from
publishing this article because it might include information from the confidential report, a
document written by the AHA's law firm. On Jan. 25, Superior Court Judge Dzintra I. Janavs
denied the group's motion.
Top AHA officials said they are proud of the film unit's work and that Barrett enjoys their
full support.
"I think we do a good job, a very good job. I don't think we're compromising the safety of
animals at all," said AHA President Timothy O'Brien.
Barrett, a former Los Angeles animal regulation commissioner, has announced she will
leave her $108,000-a-year post by the end of this month to tend to her own business affairs.
Her replacement is Karen F. Goschen, AHA's chief financial officer.
The AHA also receives wide praise from Hollywood producers and directors for not only
looking after the safety of animals, but cast members as well.
"They provide a service to this industry that is extremely important," said J. Nicholas
Counter, head of the Alliance for Motion Picture and Television Producers.
It is unknown how many animals are injured or killed each year on movie sets, because
the AHA doesn't keep track. Barrett estimated that only 10 to 15 animals suffered injuries or
deaths in thousands of productions over the last four years.
Such a low estimate, say some animal activists and humane groups, underscores their
criticism that the AHA film unit is beholden to the motion picture industry.
"The Hollywood office of AHA is nothing more than a public relations firm for Hollywood
animal trainers and the studios," said Pat Derby, head of the Performing Animal Welfare
Society in Northern California.

Long-Standing Role
The American Humane Assn. has been entrusted with protecting animals on sets since
1939, when the producers of "Jesse James" created a Hollywood scandal by filming a horse
plunging to its death 70 feet off a cliff into a lake.
Often confused with the much larger and better-known Humane Society of the United
States, the AHA was founded in 1877 and is based in Englewood, Colo.
The AHA film unit, run out of a converted doctor's office next to the 405 Freeway in
Sherman Oaks, lacks the staffing and resources to keep tabs on the nearly $8-billion film
industry, Barrett acknowledged. Its annual budget is $1.5 million--or 1% of the amount
Disney is spending on the upcoming film "Pearl Harbor."
Still, Barrett claimed the unit's nine full-time field reps, along with 25 part-timers scattered
throughout the country, observe parts of 850 productions a year, or roughly 80% to 90% of
all U.S. films involving animals. The AHA's own documents, however, suggest the number of
films monitored is considerably fewer. The AHA's authority has been further eroded by the
increasing number of productions filmed in foreign countries, most of which are not subject to
the SAG contact.
The AHA staff reviews scripts and production schedules before deploying on-set
observers. If a scene is determined to involve more than "simple" animal action--say, a dog
walking to a water bowl--a monitor will visit the production site to discuss the sequence and
watch the filming.
Employees follow a 30-page manual of guidelines covering the treatment of performing
animals, from dogs to spiders. The regulations cover such details as how to stage
horse-mounted sword fights, suture closed the mouths of venomous snakes and keep a fish
out of water (no more than 30 seconds, three times a day).
Lacking any authority to enforce the guidelines, however, the association's clout largely
comes from the power to bestow or withhold the familiar endorsement that appears in a
movie's screen credits. At least two AHA investigators are humane officers who have the
authority to enforce state anti-cruelty laws. The AHA also offers reviews and ratings of
movies on its Web site, http://www
About 90% of the more than 1,400 movies listed on the Web site are rated "acceptable"
or "believed acceptable" for animal care and handling. Only 4% are rated "unacceptable." In
all, 52 productions dating back to the 1970s received outright "unacceptable" ratings; most
are obscure B-movies such as the 1979 horror flick "Cannibal Holocaust."
Barrett credits the Web site, which she says attracts thousands of viewers each day, with
giving the group leverage over producers.
"Ten years ago, we could rate a film 'unacceptable' and the studio might be embarrassed
and upset, but we didn't have producers on their knees, crying," Barrett said. "Now we do."
Over the years, the AHA unit has criticized some big-budget films, such as Francis Ford
Coppola's 1979 film "Apocalypse Now," in which an ox is hacked to death as a sacrifice,
and Warren Beatty's 1981 film "Reds," in which horses were tripped.
But, more recently, it has questioned only a few productions by major studios. In the last
10 years, just one studio release has received an outright "unacceptable" rating--an obscure
1999 MGM release, "One Man's Hero."
Other movies have been criticized for mistreating fish, rodents and insects. While
Universal's "Problem Child II" starring John Ritter received good marks for the handling of
some animals, it was panned by the AHA for contributing to the deaths of several
cockroaches in a sequence filmed over the AHA's objections.
Asked why so few films receive negative ratings, Barrett said the numbers show that the
AHA is succeeding in its mission. "Most of the time, animals in motion pictures enjoy one of
the best lifestyles for animals in the world," she said.

Employee Complaints
Employees have accused the association's film unit of caving in to the studios on major
investigations. In 1999, several staffers were so distressed by the office work environment
that they complained directly to the AHA board of directors in Colorado, prompting at least
two internal reviews.
Edward L. Lish, a veteran investigator and coordinator of the film unit's field operations,
wrote a memo detailing how the AHA pulled punches with major studios, which would face
public relations problems if criticized. While confirming the contents of the memo, Lish
declined to comment further.
In his memo, Lish cited concerns about the AHA film unit's handling of several movies,
including "The 13th Warrior," the Disney movie starring Antonio Banderas.
On Sept. 5, 1997, two horses were hurt during successive takes of a Viking battle scene
in which a stunt rider was jerked from his mount by a wire cable, internal records show. The
first time, a horse got a leg tangled in the lengthy cable and sustained a treatable injury. During
a subsequent take, the cable wrapped around another horse's leg and severed the tendons
when the animal bolted, dragging the rider through mud. The horse had to be destroyed.
Eight other dangerous or inhumane acts may have occurred during the filming, according
to an AHA draft letter in June 1999. They included a wrangler pushing a cow into the mud,
then dragging it out with a horse. This occurred in front of the cast, crew and Banderas' wife,
actress Melanie Griffith, "who was reportedly very upset," the draft letter said. And, contrary
to acceptable animal-handling guidelines, one horse was sedated during a stunt and another
was forced to jump over bales of hay and land on a hard surface.
Six days later, Barrett and Lish flew to the production site in British Columbia to
investigate. The AHA eventually concluded that the horse's death was an "industrial accident"
and that "no cruelty occurred" during filming. Although no end-credit approval was granted,
the AHA awarded the film a "believed acceptable" rating.
Dorothy Sabey, 64, the Canadian humane official who monitored the scene on behalf of
the AHA, said she felt the incident was "quietly shoveled under the carpet." She added: "You
can say it was an accident, but it was an avoidable accident. It didn't have to happen."
Disney official Bruce Hendricks said he was never informed about the death of the horse
on "The 13th Warrior," and should have been because he is the studio's main liaison with the
In his memo, Lish said Barrett prevented him from interviewing witnesses. Barrett "didn't
want things 'stirred up' before the movie was about to open," Lish wrote. "I was told not to
follow up on calls I thought I needed to make."
Barrett acknowledged telling Lish not to make the calls, but said he had approached her
about "tying up loose ends" long after the case was closed. "We don't have enough resources
to plow the same field over and over again," said Barrett, who has no investigative
Another case involved an aging quarter horse that ruptured a ligament during November
1998 filming of "Simpatico," a picture starring Nick Nolte and Sharon Stone and released by
New Line's Fine Line division. The animal came up lame during a race sequence at Los
Alamitos and had to be destroyed.
The AHA suspected mistreatment and foul play, according to Lish's memo and other
documents, before deciding that no cruelty took place. But Lish complained that Barrett took
the probe away from him and gave it to a less-experienced AHA official.
Barrett said her staff pursued all leads until the investigation "sort of ran out of gas."
The AHA unit placed its "Simpatico" monitor on probation for failing to examine the fitness
of the animals or even inquire about the fate of the stricken horse, internal records show.
Even though the association withheld its seal of approval and gave the film a "questionable"
rating, the credits for "Simpatico" included the AHA endorsement. Barrett was unaware of
the unauthorized use of the endorsement until it was brought to her attention by The Times.
The AHA recently explained on its Web site that the disclaimer was unauthorized.
Fine Line officials said they had nothing to do with the credits because they had purchased
the movie from a French pay-TV company.

Shock Collars
In "Running Free," Sony provided the AHA with two reports from inspectors with the
Animal Anti-Cruelty League of South Africa that revealed occasional use of shock collars and
BB guns to train horses. One inspector, Louis Vermeulen, said his group frowns on such
training techniques, which also have long been discouraged by the AHA.
Vermeulen's report praised the overall treatment of animals, but noted that four horses
died or were euthanized during filming--none due to "neglect or irresponsibility." A
16-year-old gelding named "Rommel" died of a heart attack after exhibiting a history of
"unease, unwillingness to work or move," and a 12-day-old foal succumbed to a brain injury
after "possibly" getting kicked in the head while being transported to the set in a trailer, the
report said.
AHA gave the film a "believed acceptable" rating on its Web site without mentioning the
controversial training methods or the deaths of the horses. Barrett said the information on the
deaths was omitted because Vermeulen's report was not in AHA files. The AHA plans to
update its Web site to mention the deaths of the four horses, she said.
At Sony's request, the AHA also awarded "Running Free" a joint on-screen endorsement
with an overseas animal rights group, even though no one from AHA had monitored the
"It's not like they [Sony] twisted my arm," Barrett said Thursday, after reviewing the South
African reports. "I still think they did a good job on the film. Why wouldn't I want to endorse
In the case of "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," the TV show's own producer initiated
action against an animal trainer. The association ruled that horses were "not in young, perfect
condition" but sound enough to work, Barrett said.
However, a dozen horses were so lame and ill that their use had to be severely curtailed,
according to Beth Sullivan, the veteran producer of "Dr. Quinn," and the local Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Sullivan said she was so upset that she fired the horse
The AHA also drew fire for its response when a female elephant, Akili, died suddenly in
1998 on the Ventura County set of the television show "Born Free." Barrett issued a news
release a day later, saying that "Akili was well cared for and appeared healthy." At the time, a
necropsy was pending to determine what killed the animal. The necropsy found that the
elephant had died of a twisting of the large colon.
The AHA's reaction drew a sharp rebuke from Pat Derby, the head of the Performing
Animal Welfare Society. She questioned why the association rushed to judgment on behalf of
the show and its trainer.
"Whenever anything goes wrong, she jumps in and says everything is fine," said Derby, a
longtime critic of Barrett.
More recently, AHA officials waited months to weigh in about persistent reports that
horses were abused during the New Zealand filming of "Lord of the Rings," part of New Line
Cinema's long-anticipated $270-million trilogy. The allegations sparked local news reports
and investigations by New Zealand government officials, who found nothing.
Despite receiving dozens of e-mails since October alleging mistreatment on the set of
"Lord of the Rings," AHA officials did not contact or initiate a meeting with New Line
executives until mid-January.
Barrett said the AHA is stretched too thin to look into the non-SAG production--among
Hollywood's most expensive projects ever. "We frankly didn't have the resources to go and
beat down the door and try to argue with them about it," she said.
In a meeting last month, AHA officials "asked questions and we answered all of them,"
said New Line spokesman Steve Elzer. "They were more than satisfied with our answers."
Nevertheless, Barrett said that none of the three "Lord of the Ring" films will receive the
association's endorsement, since no AHA monitor was invited to the set.

Money From Studios
Since the early '80s, the major studios have directly paid for the AHA film unit's budget.
Concerned about the appearance of improper influence, film companies changed the
arrangement in 1993 by depositing money into a fund overseen jointly by producers and the
Screen Actors Guild. This fund now doles out about $1.5 million a year to the AHA.
In addition, the AHA accepted money directly from two major studios to cover the cost
of monitoring movies overseas. Disney spokeswoman Andrea Marozas said the company
agreed to pay travel and hotel expenses for an AHA monitor to watch filming in London of
the recently released "102 Dalmatians" because the company anticipated that the film's
extensive use of dogs would attract scrutiny.
The AHA issued a December 1999 news release boasting that it was sending one of its
"key field representatives" for the "herculean task" of monitoring the film, without disclosing
that Disney was paying the bill.
The film received the AHA endorsement as well as a favorable rating.
Barrett said the AHA also accepted money from Warner Bros. to pay for a representative
to be on the set of the upcoming "Harry Potter" movie.
Such arrangements, Barrett said, do not pose a conflict for the AHA. "But the reality is
that we don't have enough money to cover projects which are international and last for a long
Another case that raised conflict-of-interest questions caused the AHA film unit to erupt in
turmoil 16 months ago.
An internal inquiry found that Tiffany R. Hedgpeth, an attorney and the film unit's manager
of research and investigations, had "relationships" in 1999 with two Hollywood trainers whose
animal compounds she was responsible for overseeing.
Hedgpeth dated two trainers, according to a confidential report written by Gregory F.
Hurley, an attorney with the AHA's labor law firm, Kutak Rock. The report states that
Barrett knew of both relationships and "encouraged her to contact" one of the men.
The report concluded that Hedgpeth demonstrated "a gross lack of professional judgment"
and criticized Barrett for allowing the relationships to occur.
Hedgpeth said in an interview that she was isolated from any potential conflict because
Barrett agreed to personally handle any investigation involving the trainers.
But the inquiry found that Hedgpeth signed letters that were subsequently sent to
Hollywood trainers, including the two men she dated, seeking permission to inspect and
certify their animal compounds. Hedgpeth described her action as "just a rubber-stamped
name." Barrett declined to comment.
The controversy prompted Los Angeles attorney and AHA board member Paul S. Ablon
to look into the matter and issue a stinging report in October 1999.
Ablon warned: "Charitably summarizing the situation in the L.A. [AHA] office, I would say
that it is marked by intrigue, distrust and flagrant hostility."

* * *

Mostly Acceptable
Of the more than 1,400 productions listed on the American Humane Assn. Web site, 90%
are rated "acceptable" or "believed acceptable." Only 4% are rated "unacceptable."
* * *
Acceptable: 65%
Believed acceptable: 25%
Unknown: 4%
Unacceptable: 4%
Questionable: 2%
* * *
Source: American Humane Assn.
Researched by NONA YATES/Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times

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