The premiere of the eagerly anticipated blockbuster The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will also be met with angry protests from animal rights activists after a series of animals died during filming.
Peta, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, plans to picket the premieres in Britain, the US and New Zealand after three horses died, alongside over 20 sheep, goats and chickens.
The news emerged after four of the wranglers on the set of the big budget adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s novel blew the whistle to the animal rights organisation and said the deaths were preventable.
Mimi Bekhechi, associate director of Peta in the UK, said: “Peter Jackson's films have been at the forefront of the special-effects revolution, but this production's decision to use numerous live animals and allow them to suffer needlessly and die takes the entertainment industry a giant and disgraceful step backwards.”
The Hobbit, starring Martin Freeman, is one of the most anticipated films of the year, following director Peter Jackson’s acclaimed Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first of a planned $500 million trilogy will premiere in Wellington on 38 November and open around the world next month.
Yet concerns were raised early on in the filming, with one wrangler warning in late 2010 that the farm where the animals were kept was full of “death traps”.
Two horses died after breaking their necks on the set after they were run off embankments, while another was left for over three hours with its legs tied together. Goats and sheep died from worm infestations and falling into sinkholes while unprotected chickens were killed by dogs.
No animals were harmed while the cameras were actually rolling, with their welfare overseen on set by the American Humane Association, but the farm they were kept included sinkholes, broken fences and bluffs where the animals were injured.
Four wranglers raised their concerns to Peta, saying they had been ignored by the film company despite repeated warnings. One claimed he was fired for bringing up the issue on set.
A spokesman for director Peter Jackson said the company had improved the conditions for the animals after two of the horses died. He told AP the production company had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on improving the facilities at the farm.
HBO cancelled its series Luck, a drama set at a US racetrack, after just seven episodes in March as three horses died during production. Two months later Peta filed a complaint of mistreatment of the animals.
Peta's letter to Peter Jackson:
Dear Mr. Jackson,
I am writing to you on behalf of PETA regarding your upcoming film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. We were alarmed to receive three separate reports from animal wranglers who worked on your film and allege that at least three horses and numerous sheep, goats, and chickens died during production. Their accounts of what happened are consistent with one another. The allegations include the following:
- A black and white horse named Shanghai was hobbled (his legs were tied together so that he could not move) on set during a location shoot and left lying on the ground for more than three hours reportedly because he was too active for his rider to handle. The rope burns on all of Shanghai's legs that resulted from the hobbling were covered up with makeup and fake feathers (long hair on the legs of some horses) for filming. Hobbling is a violation of American Humane Association's (AHA) guidelines and an inappropriate way to deal with an energetic horse.
- A horse named Claire died after being housed in a paddock on the edge of steep bluffs leading to a river with too many other horses and not enough grazing grass. She was run over a bank by the other horses and found in the morning with a broken neck and her head submerged in the river. Prior to her death, an email had been sent to production explaining the hazards on the farm, but head animal wrangler Steve Old may have assured the production the farm was safe.
- A pony named Rainbow was run off an embankment by two highly strung geldings in the paddock they were housed in. The next morning, Rainbow was found severely injured but alive, with his neck and back broken. He was subsequently euthanized.
- Two weeks later, a horse named Doofus was housed with the same two geldings, despite concerns raised by wranglers when a supervised attempt to introduce Doofus to the geldings resulted in his being bullied by them. The next morning, he was found tangled in the fence, with the skin and muscles of his leg torn away. The ground was covered with hoofmarks that suggested the horses had been fighting. Doofus' leg had still not healed 18 months later.
- A horse named Zeppelin, who was used to living out in the New Zealand bush and on a diet of grass and some hay was moved to a stall because of the other horse deaths. At the stable, Zeppelin was fed grain and then died from unknown causes. Zeppelin displayed the symptoms of colic, a serious, sometimes fatal illness in horses that is most often (and predictably) triggered by a change in diet, especially by feeding grain to a horse unused to such rich feed. The only reason the cause of death is listed as "unknown" is that the head animal wrangler, Steve Old, allegedly declined a necropsy and the horse was buried by wranglers on the farm where they were housed. The wranglers were told by Old not to speak of Zeppelin's death to production for fear that they would lose their jobs.
- A cast horse named Molly had her leg caught in wire fencing, and the skin and muscles were torn away when the horses were returned to the paddocks after Zeppelin's death in the stable.
- Sheep were housed with inadequate water and no shade, even though it was summer and they had their full wool coats. Numerous goats and sheep used for the production died, primarily from worm infestations and from falling into the sink holes that riddled the farm.
- Twelve chickens were mauled and killed by dogs who weren't properly supervised.
According to the wranglers who came forward, all of these incidents could have been prevented if the responsible parties had fulfilled their duties. Allegedly, the head animal trainer, Steve Old, was heavily involved in other projects, namely The Great New Zealand Trek, and was distracted from his work on The Hobbit. Old went as far as to pull animal trainers from The Hobbit to work on other projects that he was involved in. The animal wranglers allege that the AHA representative on set, Steve Mirams, a New Zealand veterinarian whose expertise is reportedly in companion-animal medicine rather than in equine care, was inappropriately friendly with Old and dismissive of the other wranglers' concerns. The AHA representative was not on set for all the animal sequences, and instead, a wrangler was asked to take notes for him during filming. Reportedly, three horses were dead by the time the AHA investigated and made recommendations for improvements in housing. In September, we contacted the AHA about reported problems on the The Hobbit and other films, but we have yet to receive a response to the specific allegations.
Unfortunately, this isn't the first time that the AHA appears to have failed to do its job. HBO's recently canceled show Luck incurred three horse fatalities even though the AHA supervised the production. We hope that the AHA will improve its standards of oversight, and we have provided the group with recommendations that would enable it to better protect horses and other animals on sets. But it's clear that, at this time, relying solely on AHA monitoring is not enough to keep animals safe.
The wranglers say that they repeatedly alerted your production company to the danger that the animals were in and that their warnings were ignored. A letter was sent to Unit Production Manager Brigitte Yorke by wranglers who resigned after the first death detailing the concerns about the horses' housing and Old's lack of oversight, but Yorke did not respond to these concerns. Production reportedly did nothing and allegedly fired another wrangler for expressing his concerns about animal safety.
Mr. Jackson, we hope you agree that what happened to the animals used for The Hobbit is inexcusable. We urge you to leave live animals out of future films and instead rely on the superb CGI technology that you have at your fingertips at WETA. Such techniques are extremely effective and will truly ensure that no animals are harmed. In the event that you feel it necessary to use real animals—such as horses—on set, having an AHA representative present is not enough to ensure animal safety, and the burden is on the production to take the necessary steps to safeguard all creatures who are a part of your shoot, not just the humans. May we please speak with you to discuss this important issue in more detail? I can be reached at LisaL@peta.org or 323-210-2202. Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.
Lisa Lange, Senior Vice President, PETAReuse content