Like any pair of geeks, Sean and I have been looking forward to this film for years, have played and shared the trailers, have swooned over the snippets of song we've heard. We've even planned to go to the midnight showing on the day of its premiere, and we've talked about whether or not Peter Jackson will once again render Tolkien's work with the loving detail he gave to "The Lord of the Rings".
So we were devastated to learn that animal wranglers for the film have recently alleged that at least twenty-seven horses, goats, sheep and chickens died off-set during production because of poor living conditions and neglect. Entertainment Weekly writes:
Wrangler Chris Langridge said he was hired as a horse trainer in November 2010, overseeing 50 or so horses, but immediately became concerned that the farm was full of "death traps." He said he tried to fill in some of the sinkholes, made by underground streams, and even brought in his own fences to keep the horses away from the most dangerous areas. Ultimately, he said, it was an impossible task...
The first horse to die, he said, was a miniature named Rainbow.
"When I arrived at work in the morning, the pony was still alive but his back was broken. He’d come off a bank at speed and crash-landed," Langridge said. "He was in a bad state."
Rainbow, who had been slated for use as a hobbit horse, was euthanized. A week later, a horse named Doofus got caught in some fencing and sliced open its leg. That horse survived, but Langridge said he’d had enough.
He and his wife, Lynn, who was also working as a wrangler, said they quit in February 2011. The following month, they wrote an email to Brigitte Yorke, the Hobbit trilogy’s unit production manager, outlining their concerns.
Chris Langridge said he responded to Yorke’s request for more information but never received a reply after that. (http://goo.gl/6MqbJ)
This was only the first of many complaints the production staff allegedly received from wranglers about everything from deaths resulting from new feed to the mauling of twelve chickens left out of their enclosures. Wrangler Johnny Smythe alleges he was fired in October 2011 when he argued with a supervisor about the problem after having buried six goats and six sheep because of neglect.
The American Humane Association, which monitors the treatment of animals on-set, has called these deaths unacceptable and renewed efforts to expand its mandate. In a news release dated November 19th, the organization writes:
Because of American Humane Association’s monitoring of the animal action which included having a licensed veterinarian on the scene, no animals were harmed on set during filming of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." However, upon learning of injuries and deaths of animals while being housed at a working farm 186 miles from the main set and 26 miles from the soundstage, American Humane Association went beyond its jurisdiction and authority to visit, examine and make safety recommendations and improvements to the farm. These recommendations were implemented a year ago, bringing a higher level of animal welfare to all animals living on the site into the future.
"We must bring the same high degree of safety and humane treatment that has been achieved on the set to animals throughout their life, including training, housing, and safe, dignified retirement...We owe it to these hard-working and beloved members of our community, just as we work to take care of their human counterparts. Anything less is unacceptable." (http://goo.gl/ccFka)
Peter Jackson and Hobbit filmmakers have responded to these allegations via a public statement, which includes the following:
The producers of The Hobbit take the welfare of all animals very seriously and have always pursued the highest standard of care for animals in their charge. Any incidents that occurred that were brought to their attention as regards to this care were immediately investigated and appropriate action taken. This includes hundreds of thousands of dollars that were spent on upgrading housing and stable facilities in early 2011.
The producers completely reject the accusations that 27 animals died due to mistreatment during the making of the films. 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. Over 55 percent of all shots using animals in The Hobbit are in fact computer generated; this includes horses, ponies, rabbits, hedgehogs, birds, deer, elk, mice, wild boars and wolves.
The American Humane Association (AHA) was on hand to monitor all use of animals by the production. No animals died or were harmed on set during filming.
We regret that some of these accusations by wranglers who were dismissed from the film over a year ago are only now being brought to our attention. We are currently investigating these new allegations and are attempting to speak with all parties involved to establish the truth. (http://goo.gl/YARok)
A spokesperson for Peter Jackson named Matt Dravitzki has also acknowledged that horses, goats, chickens and sheep died off-set and that two of the horse deaths were 'avoidable'. The rest, he alleges, were from 'natural causes'. (http://goo.gl/K8KWW)
So that's the story as we understand it. Here's what we find troubling:
First, Peter Jackson alleges the wranglers in question were dismissed because of their substandard supervision of the animals in their care and that they are only now complaining about off-set living conditions, which gives the impression that these people are angry about having been dismissed and want to hurt the film. However, the wranglers themselves allege they worked to improve conditions while they were employed, took their concerns to supervisors and wrote to production staff before quitting or being fired for their efforts. While the truth is usually always somewhere in the middle, it's unlikely that four wranglers who were fired for neglecting or mistreating animals would come forward shortly before the film's launch to complain about animal mistreatment, especially if the reasons for their dismissal were documented by the production company. It's more likely that the wranglers who allege they wrote to production staff about off-set problems can produce those letters. So we're siding with the wranglers on this one.
Second, Peter Jackson's production company acknowledges the deaths of several horses, goats, chickens and sheep but claims that all but two horse deaths were the result of natural causes. From a vegan abolitionist perspective, it's troubling to begin with that a company so proficient in CG technologies would choose to use animals in production at all, but that by itself wouldn't stop us from seeing the film. It's also troubling that two 'avoidable' horse deaths occurred off-set during production, but the American Humane Association indicates that it went beyond its mandate to make recommendations for off-set care, and we believe the production company when it alleges that it implemented those recommendations. What we find unforgivable here is the assertion that the rest of the animal deaths were from natural causes. Bloating and subsequent death because of bad feed is not a natural cause of death for a horse. Mauling is not a natural cause of death for a chicken under human care. These and the other animals mentioned have long lifespans, so unless they died of old age or some physical infirmity, their deaths were the result of mistreatment or neglect.
Finally, there are discouraging disparities between Peter Jackson's assertions and those of the American Humane Association and the wranglers, which lead us to believe the production company is equivocating on this matter rather than tackling it honestly and fairly. And because we believe the wranglers, we also believe the production staff is lying to make whistleblowers look bad. That's inexcusable. We also think it's fairly damning that Matt Dravitzki would claim the rest of the animal deaths off-set were due to natural causes, as if that makes the death of an animal in the service of entertainment a palatable thing, let alone twenty-seven deaths.
And that brings us to the core issue here. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of animals were used for the purpose of human entertainment, and of them, at least twenty-seven suffered and died for the sake of it. Worse, the production company responsible for those animals has downplayed their deaths and blamed the whistleblowers. Sean and I love our geekery as much as the next person, but we're vegans and activists first, and we can't condone these behaviors. So we won't be going to see any of The Hobbit movies, and we won't watch them for free, because we won't have it said that we knowingly participated in blaming whistleblowers and covering up the deaths of animals in the service of our entertainment.