Aside from consuming unbuttered popcorn and starspotting, LA movie audiences have another timehonored tradition: When the credits roll, rather than dash to the parking lot to beat the traffic, many Angelenos stay in their seats. It’s not that they’re still soaking up the film’s subtext or wiping away a few last tears in the dark (well, maybe sometimes). Rather, they’re looking for familiar names—the best boy, the key grip, the caterer—and smatterings of applause arise when a friend’s name scrolls by. But while the names in the credits change from film to film, one important credit remains steadfastly the same: No Animals Were Harmed.
We’ve all read that line many times, but what does it mean, and who are the people protecting those sassy pups and noble eagles? Ensuring that animals cast in a movie, music video, television show or commercial are safe is just one of the crucial missions of the American Humane Association, which has stood up for the wellbeing and dignity of children and animals for more than a century. And when it comes to Hollywood, the organization has been truly vital. In fact, American Humane is the only organization authorized to award the trademarked “No Animals Were Harmed”seal.
More than 1,000 productions a year use the services of American Humane’s Film & Television Unit, which began monitoring movies in 1940. Jone Bouman, the unit’s director of communications, describes its responsibilities: “We are part of the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] agreement.We not only take care of the animal, which is our main priority, but by extension, we protect the people who work with that animal. I can’t tell you how many times an actor will say ‘I can ride a horse!’ They can’t ride a horse— they’ve been on a horse twice in their life. The next thing you know, a director is expecting them to go into a stampede with 40 loose animals.American Humane is there to step in and say, ‘That’s probably not gonna happen.’ So we protect the cast and the crew who work with the animals. Cast and crew are not expected to be animal specialists—we are. That’s our job.”
So that Schnauzer who hops on the roller coaster and is later seen dangling precariously from the tracks? Or the hamster who parachutes into a car through the sunroof? Breathe easy. Though scripts often call for real creatures to do comically outlandish things, the animal star is in good hands, thanks to American Humane’s on-set oversight. Sometimes, though not often, animatronics or computer-generated imagery is employed—say, in a scene where a young child has to ride a large horse. But Bouman feels that real animals “give a richness, as the animal engages more,” making mechanical or computer-generated animal doubles a second choice.
Before the group stepped in, animals who appeared in movies—though they often had caretakers on the set—were not uniformly protected. Attitudes varied from production to production; if a horse had to be seen falling over a cliff, it wasn’t unusual for a real horse to fall over a real cliff, with predictably disastrous results.
Thankfully, with animal-safety reps standing by, the days of sending a living creature over the side of a mountain in the name of entertainment have ended; instead, care and caution are the watchwords. “Our people have incredible, unique banks of knowledge,” says Bouman. “When you have a director who has a vision, we’re not there to say ‘We’re going to squash your vision… sorry!’We’re there to say, ‘Okay, let’s help you get that shot, but we’re going to help you get that shot in a safe way.’”
On many sets, few players are as well attended as the floppy-eared puppy or the swarm of wasps or the stallion who has to rear up when a rattler slithers out from under a bush (the snake is being supervised and protected, too).While a human actor may have his assistant nearby, and the director has her script supervisor at the ready, an animal— from an elephant to an gerbil—will usually have a veritable team of people looking after his welfare: his trainer, who taught him to do the stunts; his owner, who lives with and cares for him (sometimes the trainer and owner will be the same person); and his safety representative from American Humane. Typically, there is also a veterinarian on the set— definitely in major productions—or an on-call doctor “close enough to get to the set very quickly,” remarks Bouman.