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Hollywood's Animal-Cruelty Problem Must Look Familiar to the NFL and U.S. Military

Four horses euthanized during filming of the HBO drama Luck after producers ran elderly, underfed animals as if they were racehorses in their prime. Dozens of fish and squid dead from the underwater explosions that dramatize Pirates of the Caribbean. A chipmunk squashed under its handler’s foot on the set of the rom-com Failure to Launch. These are just a few of the bloody incidents catalogued in the investigative report “Animals Were Harmed,” published Monday by The Hollywood Reporter.

THR lays these filmmaking fatalities at the feet of the American Humane Association, the non-profit that hands out the “No Animals Were Harmed” designation that is such a staple of TV and movie credits, building a portrait of an organization that is far too cozy with Hollywood to effectively police it. The regulator is actually on the movie industry’s payroll: AHA’s Film & TV Unit subsists largely on a multi-million dollar grant from the SAG-AFTRA actors’ union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and it’s currently working on a “fee-for-service” plan, under which producers will pay AHA to monitor sets starting as early as January. In other words, this litany of Hollywood’s furry casualties is a familiar parable of what happens when a powerful entity regulates itself.

The danger inherent to such an arrangement has made news in other areas of American life this year. It’s currently the subject of a heated debate in the U.S. Senate, where the effort to protect military troops from an epidemic culture of sexual assault—there were 3,374 reported assaults last year, and the Pentagon estimates the real figure is more like 26,000—revolves around the question of whether commanders should be left in charge of these cases. Not only do officers lack the relevant expertise, but they might have a vested interest in keeping the unit's reputation squeaky-clean—and, in some cases, they might be part of the problem, as when a colonel who once headed the Air Force's sexual assault prevention program was charged with groping women himself (he was later acquitted). The issue has turned into a face-off between Senator Claire McCaskill, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee who wants to leave the power to prosecute within the chain of the command, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who wants to hand that responsibility to lawyers who remain part of the military, but are removed from the insular politics of the troops. Gillibrand’s bill failed to pass the Senate last week, but she has vowed to bring it up again in December.

The hazards of self-policing rear their head in every sphere. Like military commanders, college administrators have drawn fire for handling sexual assault and rape internally, even pressuring students not to go to the police or make a fuss that would tarnish the school’s image. If an external body regulated the NFL, perhaps fewer players would come away with brain disease: The main function of the league’s own Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee seems to be to downplay the dangers of concussions; in 2004, it even went so far as to claim that NFL players’ brains had evolved so as to better withstand injury. And back in Hollywood, the AHA isn’t the only entity in bed with its client. Perhaps the most despised is the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents Hollywood’s largest studios as a trade association and lobbyist, but which also administers the G through NC-17 ratings system for all movies, and has been shown to crack down on independent filmmakers while giving its wealthier clients a pass.

Beyond the AHA’s financial reliance on Hollywood, THR suggests, it has an entrenched culture of kowtowing to the industry. Employees allege the non-profit “courts” big names, such as Steven Spielberg, who can garner them publicity—it gave his film War Horse a “No Animals Were Harmed” tag even though a horse did, in fact, die on the way home from shooting—and they said AHA monitors who “play nice,” or look the other way during filming, have stellar reputations, while employees who raise a fuss on a high-profile set get pulled. The AHA has punched a myriad of loopholes in the “No Animals Were Harmed” credit, so that what sounds like a declarative statement is anything but. “Alarmingly, it turns out that audiences reassured by the organization’s famous disclaimer should not necessarily assume it is true,” THR counsels. “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 organization has also come up with a wide array of modified labels, such as “American Humane Association monitored the animal action.” Ludicrously, “the AHA says viewers were expected to infer that this truncated end credit ‘indicates Accidental Harm’ to animals occurred on the film.”

It’s ironic, if unsurprising, how many animals have perished in the name of films about mankind’s special relationship with our four-legged companions. A dog died of bloat during the production of Marmaduke, a light-hearted romp about a family’s Great Dane, and two horses paid the ultimate price for Flicka, the movie rendition of a classic novel about a boy and his horse. An AHA board member captured, perhaps accidentally, the silver screen's power to obscure reality by saying, “I think what people think [the end credit means] is that when a horse dies in the movies, it didn’t really die.” The scenes the camera doesn’t capture—or which didn't make final cut—barely occur to the audience, and Hollywood’s close relationship with the AHA turns what should be a source of oversight into yet another instrument to spin that golden web. Wherever regulation is controlled by the body under scrutiny, the script can be written however that body chooses, creating an alternate reality that ignores the hidden narrative, whether it be brain-damaged athletes, students and soldiers raped by their peers, or animals killed in the making of entertainment for humans.

Photo credit RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images.