Hollywood’s Grotesque Animal Abuse

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is in hot water, again, for its lack of diversity. Indeed, the overwhelmingly white 88th Academy Awards are the subject of 2016’s most heated cultural debate. Millions of people have taken to Twitter to air their indignation over what they perceive to be the latent racism informing this year’s Oscar nominations.

As a result, #OscarsSoWhite now occupies a centralized position in our cultural lexicon—and a number of household Hollywood names have announced their plans to boycott the award ceremony. In response, the Academy has promised to change their membership and voting rules in order to foster more diversity. Splendid.

In other, more obscure news, an undercover video recently surfaced showing animal trainer Michael Hackenberger assaulting a young Siberian tiger with a whip. So extreme was the recorded physical abuse, which took place during a so-called training session, that the tiger “involuntarily emptied his anal sacs, a fear response in big cats.”

*Warning: Graphic footage

Unsurprisingly, this is not Mr. Hackenberger’s first foray into animal abuse. Last year he managed to provoke a small cluster of outrage when, on live television, he verbally abused a baboon for failing to perform a trick.

So why is this relevant? Because Michael Hackenberger is the owner of Bowmanville Zoological Park in Ontario, Canada—a zoo that regularly supplies animals for use in television and film. To take one example: King, the tiger who starred in 2013’s much-vaunted “Life of Pi,” was provided by Hackenberger.

“Life of Pi,” as you may or may not remember, was a financial and critical smash: in addition to taking home four Academy Awards, it raked in over $600 million at the box office. A small (and largely ignored) controversy ensued, however, when it was revealed by the Hollywood Reporter that King had nearly drowned to death on set.

Gina Johnson, tasked by the American Humane Association (AHA) with ensuring “animal welfare” during production of the film, described the episode in an email to a colleague: “The worst thing was that last week we almost fucking killed King in the water tank. This one take with him just went really bad and he got lost trying to swim to the side. Damn near drowned.”

“I think this goes without saying,” she continued, “but DON’T MENTION IT TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY THE OFFICE! I have down-played the fuck out of it.”

In spite of this incident, the film’s audience was assured by the AHA that “No Animals Were Harmed” during production. Naturally, this raises questions.

Hollywood has a long and sordid history when it comes to its treatment of non-human animals. In 1925, more than 100 horses were killed on the set of “Ben-Hur.” During production of “Jesse James” (1939), two horses were blindfolded and made to run off a cliff. Cue in the AHA, which in 1940 began monitoring the treatment of animals, and enforcing what they refer to as “animal welfare,” on Hollywood sets.

A number of shocking instances of animal cruelty in the 1970s – e.g. the butchering of the water buffalo in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” from which the AHA was barred access – shone a hard light on Hollywood’s callousness toward non-human life, and people began to pay attention. (This of course did not stop “Apocalypse Now” from being nominated for Best Picture at the 52nd Academy Awards.)

Beginning in the 1980s, the AHA was granted unfettered access to Hollywood film sets, and the now famous “No Animals Were Harmed” accreditation began showing up in closing credits. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, this did not translate to a moratorium on animal cruelty. As the Hollywood Reporter made plain in its exposé, animals forced to perform for TV or film are still subject to injury and/or death on a routine basis. To make matters a little more worrying, the incidents are rarely investigated.

Take Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” a big-budget feature film released in 2012. More than two-dozen animals are said to have died during production, many from exhaustion. An investigation was reportedly ruled out – by the AHA – due to a “lack of physical evidence.” When the necessary physical evidence was offered, the excuse became a lack of jurisdiction.

There is no shortage of recent examples. Four horses notoriously perished during the filming of HBO’s “Luck.” A chipmunk was stepped on and crushed to death on the set of “Failure to Launch.” “Flicka,” a 2006 adventure film, resulted in the deaths of two horses. And so on and so forth. All of the forgoing productions, it should be emphasized, were monitored by the AHA; all of them received the “No Animals Were Harmed” credit.

While these examples are particularly grotesque, one inevitably comes to the conclusion that to award any film the “No Animals Were Harmed” credit is problematic, regardless of whether or not the animal in question was actually harmed on set.

As evinced by PETA’s undercover video, animals used for show business are necessarily made to endure a life of cruelty and torture – euphemistically called training – the purpose of which is to suppress their nature and render them tractable. Suppose, for the sake of analogy, that a child is abused four times per week: common sense tells us that it shouldn’t make a difference whether he was abused yesterday. In the best of cases, “No Animals Were Harmed” is a cynical half-truth; in the worst, it’s an outright lie used to whitewash the fact that sentient beings were killed for our amusement.

So, after Hollywood sorts out its diversity problem, will it perhaps address its torture and killing problem? I won’t hold my breath.

Michael Howard is a freelance writer from Buffalo, NY.