Safety On the Set

American Humane dogs the industry on behalf of animals
By Alysia Gray Painter, November 2010
Dogs on Movie Sets

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.

The American Humane safety representatives are a rare breed, people who greet their callings with seriousness, skill and devotion to all things furred and feathered. Not only must they undergo specialized training that prepares them to understand the needs and behaviors of canines and ferrets and parrots and apes and cows and beyond (many representatives have veterinary medicine, zoo or shelter work in their background), but they must also have the personal grit and fortitude to make what might be an unpopular or difficult determination for the sake of an animal’s well-being. Because, while caricatures of directors and film people tend to be off-base— there are no megaphone-waving megalomaniacs in the industry (or very few)—when the light is fading and hundreds of people are waiting to get a shot, the intensity on a set can be, well, intense. But if it looks like a screeching truck might come too close to a cat, or if a dog leaping through a window might injure herself, the representative must make the critical call.

That said, injuries do occur on occasion. “We live in the real world—accidents happen, even with the best of intentions,” observes Bouman. But she describes such incidents as “very rare” and says that, after investigation, even if it proves to be a true accident, a different end credit must be given—in short,“No Animals Were Harmed” will not roll at the end of the film.However, if the abuse or neglect is not accidental, that’s a different hive of bees altogether. American Humane has no qualms about immediately stepping in, removing the animal and shutting down the scene.

Sets visited by American Humane reps can be on a Tinseltown studio lot or on some faraway isle. “We go all over the world,” Bouman says, noting that there are 11 full-time representatives in Los Angeles and a few dozen part-timers stationed around the country and the globe. “In the U.S., when you shoot under the Screen Actors Guild agreement, our services are free, which is great, because any production that wants us there doesn’t have to worry about getting us into the budget. However, when you film overseas, as many large productions are wont to do, we have to charge a small fee.” It should be noted that American Humane oversight is mandatory in the Screen Actors Guild contract; a production under that contract must inform American Humane when an animal is going to be used in a scene. While on occasion, American Humane cannot be present— for instance, if more films are being shot than they have representatives to cover on a particular day or week—the organization considers where their team is needed most (for example, a film using elephants and bears versus a television show in which the dog’s only job is to sleep on a couch).

Finding money for an animal-safety rep is not an ordeal for most films; rather, it is one of the most important things the producers do when they are shooting outside the U.S. and know an animal actor will be in their film.“Most productions are very aware of the benefits of having an American Humane rep on set,” observes Bouman.“Not only are their animals going to be taken care of under the strictest guidelines—I mean, our guidelines are serious—but we are also extremely collaborative.”

At the end of the day, an animal in a film is not just part of the scenery or background; he or she is an employee, hired to do a job, and protections must be extended. Cheering on the feisty mutt as he dashes in front of the train is much more fun when you know that he returned to his snug little bed after filming wrapped.Whether he develops a big head from so much on-set attention and adoration is another matter entirely.

Alysia Gray Painter author of Howl and McSweeney's More Mirth of a Nation contributor, and The Bark's Southern California correspondentówas nominated for an Emmy.