What’s Wrong with American Humane Association?

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What’s Wrong with American Humane Association?

By Patty Shenker, Southern California activist
September 2011

Movie-goers who care about animals being used in films come away with a certain amount of comfort after reading American Humane Association’s famous slogan- “No animals were harmed” in the film credits. But after researching this organization, I have learned that their presence assures us of no such thing and in fact provides us with a false sense of comfort and a very different reality.

No film is worth the death of a giraffe, or a horse, or a squirrel or any other animal. I want to reiterate that AHA misrepresents their accomplishments and misleads the public. They are a huge part of the problem. Their presence is inconsistent when filming with animals and there is no law or directive that requires AHA to be present.

Movie-goers who care about animals being used in films come away with a certain amount of comfort after reading American Humane Association’s famous slogan- “No animals were harmed” in the film credits. But after researching this organization, I have learned that their presence assures us of no such thing and in fact provides us with a false sense of comfort and a very different reality. When I recently wrote to AHA, criticizing them for allowing wild animals to be used in the film, Water for Elephants, I received this response from their head of Communications, Jone Bouman- “As long as animals are involved in the process of filmmaking, American Humane Association vigorously believes it is important that we are present whenever animals are so that we can do our absolute utmost to ensure their welfare and safety on set.” Most people believe that they abide by their mission statement but nothing could be further from the truth.

Just this month, an animal advocacy group, Animal Defenders International, released disturbing videos showing the owners, Kari and Gary Johnson, and the other trainers at Have Trunk Will Travel, repeatedly beating and electrically shocking their elephants, including Tai, the “star” of Water for Elephants. Where was AHA when this abuse was going on? This was also part of the prep for the film and all the stupid things Tai has to do. AHA’s Safety rep and humane officer, Danielle Macdonald Wolcott had said- “We’re here observing prep on Water for Elephants and so we’re here to make sure that everybody knows that not only the action on set but also the prep is humanely done, all these animals have been treated fairly and humanely throughout the entire course of their training.”. They go on to say that all of Tai’s training is with positive reinforcement and treats-“without any need for threats or violence”. Jone Bouman even dares to say that “Tai is the furthest thing from being an abused elephant”! ADI’S video proves that Tai, along with all the other elephants at HTWT, are abused and AHA lies to protect the film industry’s interests.

We, animal advocates, know that all wild animals, whether they be big cats, primates or elephants, are beaten, repeatedly and severely, in order to do the things that humans seem to need for entertainment. Wild animals cannot be taught to do these unnatural tricks without the abuse. AHA seems to have no problem with using wild animals and is therefore actually supporting their abuse in entertainment. For elephants, these tricks are also very harmful to their bodies as elephants are not meant to stand on their heads or their back legs. No wild elephant does these poses naturally. It causes incredible arthritic and foot problems that haunt them forever. The truth is that these circus tricks alone are harmful to these animals but there is Tai, the “star” of WFE, doing just those same tricks for the film. AHA goes along with the American Zoo Association and circus protocol is defining the bullhook as a “guide” instead of the threatening weapon which it is to elephants. Joyce Poole, an elephant expert, has said of the bullhook- “The bullhook is a steel-tipped device similar to a fireplace poker that is used to prod, hook, jab (so-called “guiding”) and strike elephants. Even when not in use, this weapon is a constant reminder of the pain and punishment that can be meted out at any time, for any reason. So powerful is the negative association with the bullhook that an elephant who has not even seen the device in years will respond immediately to its mere presence.”

So even if the trainers never physically used it on Tai during the filming, it was never the less a psychological threat to her at all times. Let’s also take into account some facts AHA doesn’t seem to want to- most of these animals were taken from the wild as babies, their mothers killed in front of them and then they were beaten into submission with crush boxes, bullhooks and electrical prods in order to entertain. That’s the abuse that is never considered by any zoos, circuses or film crew and I think that is criminal. Tai’s wants are very different from the Hollywood producers’ wants- Tai wants her family, whom they live with their entire lives, she wants lots of space to do her many miles of daily walking and she wants to be free from fear and abuse. AHA is shortsighted to not see this previous abuse that has so badly scarred these magnificent animals. I think they could at least lobby to take wild animals out of film & television but they have no interest in doing that. In fact, when Representative Lloyd Levine introduced a bill to ban the bullhook, AHA lobbied hard to make sure the bullhook could still be used. (If bullhooks aren’t allowed, there would no longer be elephants in movies and television as it becomes too dangerous so AHA would personally suffer.) As part of the industry, AHA had to oppose such a bill. Now any true animal advocacy group would be pushing hard to ban the bullhook and the use of wild animals in entertainment so this is another example that AHA, the organization itself, is actually harmful to animals.

Then there are the very tragic events that occurred several years ago during the remake of My Friend Flicka where two horses were needlessly killed. The first horse died “after a misstep” into a squirrel hole and suffered a “very rare” head injury and consequently had to be euthanized. The second horse died about two weeks later during the filming of a rodeo event called Wild Horse Race. This race is known to be inherently dangerous and possibly deadly to horses. Because the event is very chaotic, the horses become terrified and run for their lives. This poor horse tripped on his dangling lead and another horse kicked him in the head and he went into a spasm and died a painful death. According to the animal advocacy group Shark, they wrote about this tragedy- “These horses were, in fact, not wild — no horses in rodeos are. They simply act wild out of panic and terror due to the torment to which they are subjected. Interestingly, the AHA attempted to deflect criticism by stressing the animals used were not “wild mustangs” but instead were ‘domestically bred’, as if this fact somehow lessens the tragedy. Furthermore, extras and bystanders who witnessed what happened on the set have gone public about the animal abuse that occurred, including animals being struck and punched to make them “perform.” Shark goes on to criticize AHA. “Four employees of the American Humane Association (AHA) were reportedly on the movie set prior and during the filming of the rodeo scene. They should have disallowed an event so inherently dangerous and uncontrollable from taking place to begin with, but apparently they did not.

It should be mentioned that although there is film of the accidents, all parties involved have refused to make it public. This is very telling. While claiming that all parties involved are blameless, the parties involved have refused to release the video evidence that would prove they are innocent, if in fact they are.” Important and outrageous to note- the film did get AHA’s trademarked quote-No Animals were Harmed in the making of this film! Ironic also because this unit was prompted by a scene in the 1939 film, Jesse James, in which a blindfolded horse was ridden off a cliff to his death. To add insult to injury, Sara Spaulding, AHA’S Vice President of Marketing, actually issued the following statement: “Understanding the events involving the accidental deaths of horses during the filming of Flicka does not lessen our sadness… These accidents make it clear, however, of the importance of our work to protect animal actors.” Is she for real? Shark goes on to write that this statement proves that AHA is willing to put a “positive spin on any tragedy they are responsible for overseeing- no matter how ridiculous or shameless.” It also becomes obvious that “accidental” deaths on set do not count with AHA, though I think they would count to most movie-goers who care about animals.

The City of Los Angeles conducted an investigation and determined that the deaths were preventable. They let the horse run with a long dangling lead. He stepped on it, his neck went down and he died. Everyone knows you NEVER let a horse run around with a dangling lead that they could step on. American Humane Association is responsible for allowing the horse to run with a dangling lead. Following the deaths of the two horses, the AHA conducted an investigation of itself and subsequently exonerated itself of all wrongdoing. However, after this tragedy, AHA did add to their manual that there should be no dangling leads and to look out for squirrel holes.

While we’re on the subject of their trademarked term “No animals were harmed”, AHA has threatened legal action against the Weinstein Company for using that term in The King’s Speech, without using AHA.

As a concerned animal advocate and a movie-goer, I don’t want films to be able to just put into the credits that no animals were harmed without some sort of independent animal advocacy group that really does care about the animals presiding over all filming with animals and independent of the industry. But AHA is not independent and they are not present at every movie or TV set PLUS they dare to use their cherished trademarked term even when animals are harmed, or even killed! So the truth is that AHA gives the viewers a sense of comfort, trust and assurance that no animals were harmed but it is a false sense of security. The truth is AHA is really no better or different than the Weinstein Company’s statement in assuring animals’ safety. According to Dana Bartholomew, staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News, “Critics have faulted the AHA for conflict of interest, saying it is indirectly funded by the Screen Actors Guild and have a history of covering up Hollywood animal cruelty.” Kathy Riordan, a member of the Los Angeles Animal Services Commission told the Los Angeles Daily News: “I personally think there is a major conflict of interest when the entity responsible for monitoring an industry is supported by it. Any way you look at it, [the AHA] gets paid by Hollywood and there’s something wrong with that.”

“As long as animals are involved in the process of filmmaking, American Humane Association vigorously believes it is important that we are present whenever animals are so that we can do our absolute utmost to ensure their welfare and safety on set.” When writing to AHA, I inquired why they were not present at the filming of Winter’s Bone in which a squirrel was skinned alive. (I’m assuming this was done in more than one take so several squirrels met their deaths in this horrific way.) Where the hell was AHA? Ms. Bouman’s response was- “American Humane was not on the set of Winter’s Bone due to our not being notified by the production so we cannot speak to the squirrel scene in that film.” So the truth is that films do not have to contact and use AHA even when using animals so they are probably absent on many films that harm, torture, and even kill animals.

The latest film to have a controversy surrounding an animal death is Zookeeper with Kevin James. An 18 year old healthy giraffe, Tweet, “star” of Toys “R” Us and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, so subjected to the entertainment world for many years, collapsed in his enclosure and died. A whistleblower told PETA that Tweet was forced to live in a 20 by 20 foot stall for months and that he was kept up all night during filming. That person feared that Tweet may have died from ingesting some of the blue tarp in his small enclosure. PETA and animal advocates do believe that the stressful conditions contributed to his death and these stresses are another one reason we are against the use of all wild animals in films. Wild animals just have no business in any show business! American Humane has responded saying there was no evidence to link his death to any aspect of the production. Sony Pictures and MGM concurred with AHA, releasing a statement that read, “Any abuse of animals is outrageous and we support all efforts that provide a safe, abuse-free world for animals.” But AHA takes a very strong position in the continuing use & therefore abuse of wild animals in films, TV and commercials as evidenced by Jone Bauman’s recent statement. “I think there are people who believe animals should not be used in movies, and we have a different point of view. Animals are part of our lives. They are a part of the stories that filmmakers tell, and if they’re not onscreen, we’re losing one of the best tools we have to remind people that we share the Earth with other creatures. They just have to be humanely treated.”

But I have to ask- how many animals have to die before we hold these studios and AHA responsible? No film is worth the death of a giraffe, or a horse, or a squirrel or any other animal. I want to reiterate that AHA misrepresents their accomplishments and misleads the public. They are a huge part of the problem. Their presence is inconsistent when filming with animals and there is no law or directive that requires AHA to be present. (They were not present for any of The Hangover 2’s scenes in which a capuchin monkey smokes, rides a motorcycle, is shot and eats a severed finger.) They do not take into account accidental injuries and deaths, which is outrageous and disingenuous. AHA is bought and paid for by the industry and cannot be an objective advocate for animals.

Laws must be passed that forbid wild animals from being exploited in any form of entertainment because that is the only way to assure that animals will no longer be abused. So next time you read something like this from American Humane- “After 10 years of filming and production, you can watch the eight Harry Potter movies and know that the thousands of animals — including bears, foxes, dogs, owls, oxen, horses, snakes and insects — had someone there to protect them — us! “ or see their trademarked slogan- No animals were harmed- take it for what it really means- nothing!