Filmmakers 'completely reject' animal deaths claim on New Zealand set

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The American Humane Assn., which has been tagging films with its “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer for more than 70 years, is asking the entertainment industry for “additional jurisdiction and funding” to ensure the off-set safety and welfare of animal actors after reports of deaths at a farm that was housing beasts featured in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

Peter Jackson and the “Hobbit” producers distanced themselves Monday from reports about the deaths of up to 27 animals involved in the production, stressing that none was harmed during filming and pointing out that the filmmakers spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to improve conditions at the farm near Wellington, New Zealand. The AHA verified that animals were treated well while on location but issued a statement later in the day saying that its rigorous on-set oversight was no longer adequate.

“We do not have either the jurisdiction or funding to extend that oversight to activities or conditions off-set or before animals come under our protection,” said AHA prexy-CEO Dr. Robin Ganzert. “There are too many incidents off the set, and this must stop. It is vital that we work with the industry to bring the kind of protection we have for animals during filming to all phases of production.”

Four animal wranglers told the Associated Press that the farm near the “Hobbit” shoot contained bluffs, sinkholes and broken-down fencing that caused three horses to suffer grave injuries, including a miniature that was slated to carry a hobbit in the movie. Six goats and six sheep were also said to have died after falling, contracting worms or reacting to new feed; chickens left out of their enclosures were reportedly mauled by dogs.

The wranglers said the facility — which was a working farm long before lensing began — continued to be used after they raised concerns with superiors and the production company. But the company on Monday roundly denied any culpability.

“The producers completely reject the accusations that 27 animals died due to mistreatment during the making of the films,” the producers said the statement. “Extraordinary measures were taken to make sure that animals were not used during action sequences or any other sequence that might create undue stress for the animals involved.”

Some of the animals were brought to stay at the farm for use in the film; others were already living there before crews arrived.

Jackson is producing the films with Zane Weiner, Carolynne Cunningham and Fran Walsh; exec producers are Alan Horn, Toby Emmerich, Ken Kamins and Carolyn Blackwood.

The American Humane Assn., the donation-supported nonprofit that has been monitoring on-set animal welfare since 1940, took the extraordinary step of investigating the farm in November 2011 at the production company’s request. It made a series of recommendations to bring the farm up to the standard of on-set animal housing, improvements it said the production company made.

“Any incidents that occurred that were brought to their attention as regards to this care were immediately investigated and appropriate action taken,” the producers’ statement read. “This includes hundreds of thousands of dollars that were spent on upgrading housing and stable facilities in early 2011.”

Any productions involved with SAG/AFTRA contracts and utilizing animal actors come under AHA oversight. Independent and other non-union productions will sometimes bring in the org’s regulators in order to earn its seal of approval.

“Hobbit” producers also pointed out that more than half the animals seen in “The Hobbit” are computer-generated. Still, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told the AP that it’s planning protests at the Nov. 28 premiere in New Zealand, as well as at its U.S. and U.K. preems.

The treatment of animals became a front-and-center issue in March, when HBO canceled the horse racing series “Luck” after three thoroughbreds died during production. The network said it canceled the show because it could not guarantee against future accidents.

“The Hobbit” is the second Warner Bros. tentpole this year dealt a PR setback after the shootings in Aurora, Colo., this summer during a latenight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises”; that incident forced the studio to push back release of “Gangster Squad” because of a scene depicting a movie theater shooting.

The studio had no comment.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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