“We have an industry-wide problem here,” said Kathy Guillermo, PETA’s senior vice president. “It’s so widespread, and filmgoers aren’t being informed.”
In a phone interview, Guillermo said the 27 animal deaths -- which included chickens, goats, sheep and horses -- was the largest number of animal deaths she’d ever heard of for a single production.
Earlier this year, production on HBO’s horse-racing drama “Luck” was suspended after three horses died during production. After that story was reported, Guillermo said PETA was contacted by “whistleblower” wranglers who worked on “The Hobbit” production near Wellington, New Zealand. She said one wrangler, Johnny Smythe, first reported the animal deaths last year, but the story did not travel beyond the local press.
PETA put the wranglers in touch with the Associated Press, which reported the story early Monday. The wranglers told the AP that the production company was negligent -- keeping the animals on an ill-equipped farm filled with sinkholes and other “death traps.”
Three horses were among the animals that died, including a miniature horse named Rainbow whose back was broken after he fell off a bank and “crash landed,” according to the AP. The animal had to be euthanized.
Guillermo said horses are particularly vulnerable to the unfamiliar environments of film production. “They’re prey animals,” she said. “Their response to something that startles them is to take flight, and that can be dangerous for horses and for the people on set.”
A rep for Jackson’s production company confirmed to the AP that two horse deaths could have been prevented. But Jackson has vehemently denied that 27 animals died during production due to mistreatment.
In a statement, Jackson and the producers of the upcoming fantasy film said they “completely reject” the AP’s story. “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,” the statement said.
The American Humane Association (AHA), the organization charged with overseeing the welfare of animals on movie sets, said that no animals were harmed during filming of “The Hobbit,” but maintained that it has no jurisdiction to ensure animal safety on the off-set farm where the animals were kept. In an email message to IBTimes, Mark Stubis, the AHA’s chief communications officer, said the organization has called on the entertainment industry to expand its jurisdiction and allow it to protect animals beyond the set.
“The challenge now is that our jurisdiction, authority and funding are limited to monitoring and protecting animals on the set itself,” he said. “An unacceptable number of problems are occurring off set when we are not there to protect animals, or before they ever arrive on set.”
Guillermo takes issue with that claim, however. She said that, while the AHA’s jurisdiction does not require it to inspect off-set facilities, the organization is not prohibited from doing so. “Despite what they’ve been saying, they can and sometimes have inspected animal housing,” she said. “The problem is they don’t always do what they can do.”
Guillermo said PETA is still in touch with Jackson, but that so far his response to the animal deaths has been “inadequate.” In the meantime, she said that animal lovers and “Hobbit” fans alike should speak out on the PETA website, where they can send a letter to Jackson and the producers.
“We do hope people won’t go see it,” she added. “The movie obviously has a lot of fans, and we’re sympathetic to that. But we feel this is a betrayal to those fans.”