'No Animals Were Harmed': Hollywood's tacit approval of animal abuse

A disturbing new expose has revealed widespread animal abuse and neglect in movies and television. But will it change anything?

The AHA allegedly covered up the death of a horse in Steven Spielberg's War Horse.
(Image credit: (Getty Images/Ian Gavan))

Traditionally, big movie executives and Ari Gold-esque agents fill the roles of the sketchiest denizens of Hollywood. But it turns out that the title may actually belong to the seemingly benign American Humane Association (AHA).

Gary Baum’s expose in The Hollywood Reporter reveals the deception and corrupt inner workings of the organization behind the “No Animals Were Harmed” notes on the movies we love. His investigation into the AHA shows that the group “distorts its film rating, downplays or fails to publicly acknowledge harmful incidents, and sometimes doesn’t seriously pursue investigation.”

The story contains many disturbing accusations of cover-ups, including a lion nearly drowning on the set of Life of Pi, the death of 27 animals during the making of The Hobbit, and a chipmunk being “fatally squashed” on the set of Failure to Launch.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

These movies and others received the "No Animals Were Harmed" tag anyway, because the fatalities occurred during hiatuses in shooting or when the animals weren't technically on set. Other times the animals' injuries or deaths were deemed to be unintentional or not malicious (a bright spot, I suppose?).

Even sketchier, the AHA sometimes uses the “American Humane Association monitored the animal action” claim, implying oversight without actually copping to animal injuries.

Unfortunately, this behavior sends the following message: “No one cares if you punch, step on, or starve animals as long as there’s no camera rolling,” writes L.V. Anderson at Slate.

And this behavior allegedly occurs, in part, because the AHA is funded by two other Hollywood organizations, the SAG-AFTRA actors’ union and the Industry Advancement and Cooperative Fund (IACF). This creates “the inherent conflict of interest [of] Hollywood bankrolling its regulator,” writes Baum.

A fired employee is now suing for wrongful termination after she advocated for greater rights for animals on set. She claims the AHA covered up the death of a horse in the Oscar-nominated War Horse “in order to protect Steven Spielberg and because of the volume of press and publicity this film garnered.” On top of the loss of animal life, there is the extremely slimy aspect that Hollywood is tacitly in cahoots with this abuse.

Of course, we can’t just blame Hollywood, or at least not now that we’re increasingly aware of the mistreatment and improper care of animals on set. Alex Balk at The Awl writes, “If you watch movies with animals in them there’s blood on your eyes.”

So how do we end this abuse?

Anderson suggests involving the Department of Agriculture, the government agency generally responsible for protecting animals from abuse. This very well might be a good idea, but considering that Congress has severely slashed food stamps and is still dealing with the ramifications of that whole sequestration thing, it’s unlikely legislators will mobilize to save the 21st century’s version of Old Yeller.

And sadly, the improbability of that solution points to the larger problem: Yes, people care about animals, but most people don’t care enough to prioritize their safety. We want to protect horses, but probably not enough that we’d pass up the latest Spielberg film. The AHA gets away with misleading ratings partly because it knows that it can without causing too much ruckus.

So the best hope for the animals of Hollywood is that audiences start getting angry over this neglect and abuse. And a couple of high-profile actors speaking up wouldn't hurt either.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.