“Hobbit” premiere upstaged by animal neglect allegations

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2012:

WELLINGTON–People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was
mentioned in the first sentence of international coverage of the
November 28, 2012 world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected
Journey, perhaps the most publicized film debut ever.
The American Humane Association drew global attention to the
72-year-old AHA pursuit of broader authority to supervise the use of
animals in film making.
Wellington, hosting the world premier, billed itself “The
Middle of Middle Earth.” As many as 100,000 people attended Hobbit
screenings and a parade in honor of the cast. The New Zealand
government struck commemorative coins for the occasion.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first of a planned
$500 million prequel trilogy, following the success of director
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, also based on the
writings of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973).


But Jackson’s most quoted statement of the day was his
response to allegations that 27 animals died from negligent care at a
farm where they were kept when not actually being used in the
filming, 186 miles from the main set and 26 miles from the sound
stage.
“The producers of The Hobbit take the welfare of all animals
very seriously and have always pursued the highest standard of care
for animals in their charge,” said Jackson. “Any incidents that
occurred that were brought to their attention as regards to this care
were immediately investigated and appropriate action taken. This
includes hundreds of thousands of dollars that were spent on
upgrading housing and stable facilities in early 2011.”
Both PETA and the AHA in separate statements said on November
19, 2012 that they had received letters from wranglers who had
worked on the farm where The Hobbit animals were boarded, who
alleged that the production company was responsible for the deaths of
three horses, 12 chickens, and several sheep and goats, plus
injuries to two other horses.

PETA charges

Only one of the alleged injuries described by PETA senior
vice president Lisa Lange in a letter to Jackson was said to have
actually occurred on the set, under AHA supervisory jurisdiction.
In this instance, Lange wrote, a horse named Shanghai was left with
“his legs tied together so that he could not move” for more than
three hours during a location shoot, “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 long hair for filming,” Lange said. “Hobbling is a violation
of AHA guidelines,” Lange reminded, “and an inappropriate way to
deal with an energetic horse.”
Among incidents resulting in animal deaths, Lange told
Jackson, “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.”
Also, Lange wrote, “A pony named Rainbow was run off an
embankment by two highly strung geldings. 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,” Lange added,
“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.”
Further, Lange charged, “A horse named Zeppelin, who was
used to living out in the New Zealand bush 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 cast horse
named Molly had her leg caught in wire fencing, and her 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,” Lange
said. “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.”
Lange said that according to the wranglers, head animal
trainer Steve Old “was heavily involved in other projects, namely
The Great New Zealand Trek,” an annual cross-country trail ride,
“and was distracted from his work on The Hobbit. 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,”
Lange charged, “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,” Lange said, “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.”

Wranglers’ claims

Followed up Nick Perry of Associated Press, “Handler Chris
Langridge said he was hired as a horse trainer in November 2010,
overseeing 50 or so horses, but immediately became concerned that
the farm was full of ‘death traps.’ He said he tried to fill in some
of the sinkholes, made by underground streams, and even brought in
his own fences to keep the horses away from the most dangerous areas.
Ultimately, he said, it was an impossible task. He said horses run
at speeds of up to 50 kilometers an hour and need to be housed on
flat land,” an odd statement in that horses worldwide are raised in
hill country, while wild horses–including in New Zealand–often
inhabit steep mountains.
Moreover, reported Anna Leask of the New Zealand Herald,
“The Hobbit animals were all housed on the flat part of the farm,
toward the front of the property.”
Langridge “and his wife Lynn, who was also working with the
animals, said they quit in February 2011,” Perry of Associated
Press continued. “The following month, they wrote an email to
Brigitte Yorke, the Hobbit trilogy’s unit production manager,
outlining their concerns. Chris Langridge said he responded to
Yorke’s request for more information, but never received a reply
after that.”
Another wrangler, Johnny Smythe, told Perry that he buried
six goats and six sheep who died after falling into sinkholes,
contracting worms, or suffering from bloat after changes of feed.
Smythe alleged that the chickens were often left at large and that a
dozen were killed by dogs in two separate incidents. Smythe said he
was fired after raising concerns about the treatment of the animals.

Rebuttals from the scene

Countered Hobbit set veterinarian Julia Bryce, to Leask of
the Herald, “We were consulted promptly in cases of injury and
illness. We were also consulted routinely about ongoing veterinary
care and preventative medicine. At no time were we concerned about
the welfare and ongoing treatment of animals under our care.”
Joy Gray, owner of the farm involved, The Glen in
Pauatahanui, told Leask that “The animals were wonderfully looked
after, being well fed, well housed, and well treated. The 60
horses, the cattle, oxen, sheep, goats, dogs, pigs, and hens
were given professional and humane treatment.”
Farm manager Ross Berry told Leask that he saw the animals
every day, never noticed any signs of animal neglect or abuse, and
completely disputed what the animal wranglers claimed. “There wasn’t
any deaths through being malicious,” Berry said. “They were
straight-out accidents.”
New Zealand horse industry sources who visited The Glen
during production of The Hobbit told ANIMAL PEOPLE that the horses
there were “very well looked after.”
The allegations of neglect surfaced on November 6, 2012,
according to Leask, when “The SPCA received an anonymous letter
alleging animals had been mistreated at the farm between January and
August 2011.”

Royal New Zealand SPCA

“There wasn’t anything in the allegations,” Royal New
Zealand SPCA national chief executive Robyn Kippenberger told Leask.
“This is certainly not about the animals,” Kippenberger continued.
“If it had been about the animals someone would have come to us when
it was happening, not months later. No one did.”
Louise Nind, executive assistant to Kippenberger, was more
cautious. “The SPCA are still investigating these allegations and
cannot comment further until we have completed interviewing those
concerned, and a decision has been made as to whether charges will
be laid in relation to this matter,” Nind on December 1, 2012 told
ANIMAL PEOPLE.
“The SPCA was not made aware of any alleged mistreatment of
animals until a few months after the fact,” Nind affirmed, “when we
received an anonymous complaint. This complaint was immediately
investigated by the Wellington SPCA and communicated to the AHA.
From an animal welfare investigation point of view the SPCA were
frustrated by the inability to prove any abuse due to the time delay.
All of the allegations were more than four months old. As there was
no physical evidence available, we have to assess the merits of the
version of events given by a disgruntled ex-employee and handler,”
who according to BBC News were fired in late 2011, “and the farm and
company vet and handler records made at the time of the events.”
Nind said the RNZ/SPCA has “proposed working closely with the
film industry to develop protocols that allow observation of all
animal welfare issues on film sets, which have been met warmly.
These protocols will give everyone protection against potential
neglect or abuse.”

American Humane

The AHA acknowledged having received similar allegations long
before the RNZ/SPCA did. “No animals were harmed on set during
filming of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” said an AHA prepared
statement. “However, upon learning of injuries and deaths of
animals, the AHA went beyond its jurisdiction and authority to
visit, examine, and make safety recommendations and improvements to
the farm. These recommendations were implemented a year ago.”
“We do not oversee the [animal holding] compounds, nor the
farm in this case, and only found out about the issues after the
fact,” AHA film and television unit national director Karen Rosa
told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “Standard New Zealand farming practices were
involved. The recommendations we made spoke to a higher standard of
care that we insist upon for movie animals.”
“We are currently only empowered,” through contracts with
film industry labor unions, “to monitor animal actors while they are
working on production sets,” emphasized AHA president Robin
Ganzert. “We do not have either the jurisdiction or funding to
extend that oversight to activities or conditions off set. There are
too many incidents off the set,” Ganzert added, “and this must
stop.”

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