Nearly three years ago, it was revealed that the elephant on the set of "Water For Elephants," the 2011 commercial film starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, was allegedly abused on set, electrocuted and beaten to perform on camera. Now, the company that provided the elephant, Have Trunk Will Travel, has announced that they've dropped their accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), leading some in the animal welfare community to believe that the relationship soured over the cruelty allegations.
The company has denied that AZA rescinded their accreditation, and maintains that no cruelty occurred on set. Similarly, the American Humane Association -- which monitors the welfare of animals used in entertainment and issues the famous "No Animals Were Harmed" label at the end of movies -- has also denied that elephant abuse occurred during the filming of "Water For Elephants," which received the AHA stamp of approval.
But companies like Have Trunk Will Travel are only the tip of the iceberg, according to a lengthy and troubling exposé that The Hollywood Reporter released about AHA last year. The report suggests that harm to animals happens on set all the time, and raises serious questions about the state of oversight on Hollywood sets.
The Hollywood Reporter investigation suggested that AHA's certification is frequently misapplied to films where animals actually suffer injury or even death during production, and that the organization often fails to investigate disconcerting incidents. Following the report's publication, AHA went on to deny a number of the claims outright, saying the story "distorts the work and record of a respected nonprofit organization" and paints a picture of the group that is "unrecognizable."
But according to PETA, which has been instrumental in drawing attention to AHA's complicity in animal abuse on set, little has changed since the report. "To our knowledge, nothing has changed internally at AHA," said Lisa Lange, a senior vice president at PETA. "We don't know that for sure, but we haven't seen any evidence of it... really, AHA is holding up the process. They've been on productions where animals were hurt and given the seal of approval.... Animals were killed and injured while monitors were watching the films' productions. By AHA not doing their job, they're condoning these injuries and these deaths."
In a statement released the same day as the Hollywood Reporter article last November, AHA claimed it was instigating a "comprehensive review" of its No Animals Were Harmed program. The program guidelines have been cited by animal welfare groups for the unclear standards used to evaluate animal safety on set:
These actions are bringing about game-changing innovations and enhancements that are being implemented to further increase the rigor of the safety standards while improving the quality of oversight for enhanced protections for animals working in entertainment. This new administration has made broad, sweeping changes for enhanced protections for animals working in film and entertainment. These changes were necessary, mission-driven, and will continue to build a better and safer future for the animals we love.
When contacted for details about the improvements, an AHA spokesperson simply sent The Dodo a copy of the November statement, which lists changes that include forming a scientific advisory committee to review AHA's safety guidelines; hiring veterinarians both to run the No Animals Were Harmed program and oversee production safety on the ground; and implementing third-party investigations for especially troubling on-set incidents -- specifically, animal deaths on set. The spokesperson described these steps as "what [AHA reps] are doing to keep animals safe" at present.
Lange says that Hollywood is seeing changes in how animal welfare is monitored in films -- it's just not coming from AHA. "Where we're seeing the change is from filmmakers themselves," she said. "Take Darren Aronofsky, for example. He's using 100 percent CGI in his new film about Noah's Ark. That's just the trend in Hollywood." Of course, Lange added, there are still filmmakers who rely on live wild animals in their productions, which still rely on dubious AHA oversight. Both PETA and other organizations are working to change this pattern: the former has started a campaign that targets filmmakers directly to convince them not to use live animals, while the nonprofit Movie Animals Protected (MAP), founded by former AHA employee Barbara Casey, aims to provide production oversight that the Hollywood Reporter calls "more transparent and responsive to on-set animal injuries and deaths."
Jami Lovullo, a former AHA employee who has joined Casey at MAP, explained that a fundamental difference between MAP and AHA is the "No animals were harmed" label. "We don't issue blanket statements," she said. "We say we were there monitoring. And if there are animals working, we will be there. We stay for whole time animal is working. There shouldn't be anything we miss on a production." The organization will also provide oversight for reality television shows, which Lovullo says have yet to bring AHA monitors on set.
But according to Lange, regardless of what moves other organizations make, the industry paradigm won't shift in animals' favor until all monitoring organizations take steps to change their approach. In addition to changes that AHA claims to have made already, the organization can work to prevent filmmakers' reliance on questionable animal trainers and refuse to approve any production that features live wild animals, such as apes, tigers, elephants or bears. The group can also be more proactive in reporting on-set cruelty and using its influence to halt production when animals are harmed.