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What does ‘No Animals Were Harmed’ mean? The disclaimer is not a guarantee of animal safety

A dog on a production set surrounded by fire.Special effects operators controlled the fire in this scene, keeping it at a safe distance so no smoke or fumes endangered the dog.

Teresa Ann Miller/Animals4Film

  • The American Human Association monitors roughly 70% of animal action in Hollywood productions.
  • Only the AHA can say “No animals were harmed” but it can’t vouch for specific trainers. 
  • Trainers who have been a part of AHA-approved films have been accused of animal abuse.

Earlier this year, a horse died of cardiac failure on the set of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.”

Both a veterinarian and a representative from the American Humane Association were on set at the time. The cause of the heart attack — and whether anything could have helped prevent it — remains unclear.

There’s no denying that natural deaths can happen during filming. And incidents that seem like abuse can also be perfectly innocent — like when video footage suggested a trainer on the set of “A Dog’s Purpose” had forced dog actor Hercules into the water for a stunt. Later, multiple people on set and AHA confirmed no abuse had occurred.

Yet since animals can’t say “That’s too much for me,” trainers, handlers, and other representatives have to pay attention to their body language and make that call for them.

Sometimes, however, these efforts may fall short, as evidenced by a 2013 Hollywood Reporter investigation detailing numerous cover-ups of animal injuries and deaths during filming in Hollywood.

When these incidents happened accidentally, unintentionally, or outside of filming, in many cases the AHA still issued their trademark disclaimer — or a modified one saying “American Humane monitored the animal action.”

The AHA didn’t respond to Insider’s detailed request for comment.

What does ‘No animals were harmed’ mean, exactly?

A dog jumping through what appears to be a glass window.Windows made of sugar glass shatter easily and safely so animals can jump through them without getting hurt.

Teresa Ann Miller/Animals4Film

Ten years after the release of the Hollywood Reporter investigation, AHA says it monitors roughly 70% of animal action in movies and TV shows. That comes to about 2,000 productions each year.

Since they’ve trademarked the “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer, only they can issue and define it.

And according to Dr. Tom Edling, chief veterinary officer and chief ethicist of American Humane Hollywood, the disclaimer means a movie had an AHA representative on set at some point during production to help ensure kind, humane treatment for animals.

While on set, these reps monitor things like weather, terrain, animal housing, animal health, trainer experience, and more. AHA’s chief veterinary officer also pre-approves all stunts and special effects, Edling said. 

And despite past accounts of cover-ups, AHA guidelines aim to provide productions and animal trainers with a better understanding of animal safety limitations. This becomes helpful in the event trainers receive pressure to take unnecessary risks for the sake of film, said Teresa Miller, a Hollywood animal coordinator and trainer who has worked with animals in the industry for 40 years.

Miller said the guidelines help her keep her animals safe during scripted stunts — or come up with safer alternatives that still “sell” the scene.

The disclaimer isn’t necessarily a guarantee

Michael Hackenberger's son, Kurt Hackenberger riding atop an elephant at Bowmanville Zoo.Michael Hackenberger’s son, Kurt Hackenberger at Bowmanville Zoo, which was shut down for animal cruelty.

Lucas Oleniuk / Contributo / Getty Images

When you see the “No Animals Were Harmed” accreditation, that means the production team followed AHA guidelines — at least while the representative observed the animal action, said Madeline Bernstein, president of Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles.

But even representatives observing the action can’t always protect animals completely — like in the 2011 HBO series, “Luck”, where three horses died on set

AHA also can’t vouch for specific trainers.

Video footage released in 2016 showed Michael Hackenberger, Hollywood animal trainer and owner of the Bowmanville Zoo, whipping a tiger named Uno multiple times.

Hackenberger supplied animals for a number of movies, including tigers for “The Interview,” which received full certification from AHA, and “The Life of Pi” — which featured prominently in the 2013 Hollywood Reporter investigation due to the reported near-drowning of a tiger.

The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals filed five counts of animal cruelty charges against Hackenberger, who said he wasn’t guilty of the charges on the Bowmanville Zoo Facebook page, the Toronto Star reported in 2017. His zoo eventually closed down.

Trainer Sidney Yost, who also faced multiple charges of animal cruelty and abuse, worked as an animal coordinator on many movies that received the “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer, including “Get Out,” “Logan,” and “Ant-Man”.

Yost and his company filed an appeal stating that the civil fines he faced were “excessive, arbitrary and capricious” also adding that “the government was clearly out to destroy” him, according to a 2018 Deadline article. Yost died two years later, in 2020.

These instances of animal abuse didn’t happen on movie sets, or in the presence of an AHA representative.

AHA isn’t the only option

a dogs purpose dennis quaidScene from “A Dog’s Purpose” which the AHA says no animals were harmed in the making of.

Amblin/Walden Media

Working with AHA is the only way to earn their stamp of approval disclaimer. That said, movies that use animal actors don’t have to hire an AHA observer — though they do need to register with American Humane.

They can also choose to work with the organization Movie Animals Protected, which performs a similar role. MAP launched in 2014, with a goal of making animal monitoring in films more transparent and affordable.

Unlike the AHA, which charges a daily flat rate, MAP charges an hourly rate to monitor animals both on and off camera, making sure they’re well cared for and have safe transportation and housing, said MAP director Barbara Casey.

Instead of issuing a disclaimer like AHA, MAP uses a hawk as their service mark indicating a production followed humane filming practices.

“No one (at least in this business) gets up in the morning saying, ‘Let’s go abuse some puppies!’,” Casey said. “If anything, productions may just underestimate the possibility that any harm could come to an animal on set.”

That’s why MAP works to address potential risks before rolling cameras, she added. “If we point out an area where safety can and should be improved, it’s no longer an ‘accident’ if something goes wrong in the event no change was made,” Casey said.

AHA adjusts their guidelines as needed

the lion king disneySome argue that CGI is the only way to 100% guarantee safety of animals in films.

Disney

Since the release of the 2013 Hollywood Reporter investigation, American Humane has introduced a few new guidelines to better protect animals.

For example, productions now have to get pre-approval from AHA’s chief veterinary officer before bringing puppies and kittens 8-16 weeks old on set, Edling said.

Other updates bar certain risky horse stunts — though Edling didn’t specify what stunts are considered risky — and set stricter guidelines on how productions can use horses, based on their age and training.

Miller said the overall safety on set has also changed. She said key changes, like safety meetings and bulletins on set, help cast and crew stay observant and alert when filming involves animals.

Even so, many people believe the only movies that can truly state “No Animals Were Harmed” are movies that replace animal actors with computer-generated imagery.

But the cost of CGI puts it beyond the realm of possibility for smaller productions featuring multiple animal scenes.

Miller also said CGI doesn’t capture or bring to the screen the love and actual emotions of the animals.

“There’s definitely a bond that’s missing physically between humans and animals that’s almost impossible to replace,” she said.

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