Editorial: Animal welfare can no longer be overlooked

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Accelerating pace of change in popular attitudes demands that film and other industries take heed of prevailing sentiment.

The reaction of Sir Peter Jackson to claims by animal wranglers that animals died during shooting of the Hobbit spoke volumes of his awareness and sensitivity to the new environment. Photo / Supplied
The reaction of Sir Peter Jackson to claims by animal wranglers that animals died during shooting of the Hobbit spoke volumes of his awareness and sensitivity to the new environment. Photo / Supplied

The disclaimer "no animal was harmed in the making of this film" has become a standard phrase of popular culture. So accustomed are we to seeing it among films' closing credits, and so material has it become, that it is startling to realise it is a recent innovation.

Just over three decades ago, Hollywood was casually ignoring any concerns about animal cruelty in major movies such as Apocalypse Now and Heaven's Gate.

In Apocalypse Now, a water buffalo was slaughtered with a machete, and Michael Cimino's flop western included chickens dying in staged cockfights.

Such instances were not particularly unusual in the history of film-making. Perhaps 100 horses were, for example, killed during the making of the original Ben Hur in 1926. Customarily, this was justified on the grounds of artistic merit.

But the outcry that greeted Heaven's Gate indicated this excuse would no longer suffice in a society increasingly opposed to animal maltreatment.

It also ensured there would be international attention, fairly or not, when Sir Peter Jackson was accused of stumbling into the same territory during the filming of The Hobbit.

The reaction of Sir Peter to claims by animal wranglers that up to 27 animals died during the shooting of the trilogy spoke volumes of his awareness of, and sensitivity to, the new environment.

This was not even a case where it was alleged that animals had suffered during filming. Rather, it was claimed they had been kept at a farm filled with bluffs, sinkholes and other "death traps".

Yet faced by the prospect of protests next week at the premieres of The Hobbit in New Zealand, the United States and Britain, Sir Peter did the right thing by immediately offering to open up his books to the SPCA.

As claim and counter-claim clashed, perhaps the most illuminating aspect of the imbroglio was the consensus that outside oversight of film companies' treatment of animals should extend to where they were housed and trained.

At the moment, the American Humane Association, which ushered in guidelines after Heaven's Gate and trademarked its famous phrase in 1990, monitors only what is happening on the set.

A new system in New Zealand is likely to give SPCA inspectors a role in an all-encompassing surveillance system.

This expansion carries its own commentary on what society now believes constitutes fair treatment of animals. Much has changed in a relatively short time.

The attention accorded The Hobbit is part of a continuum in which bull-fighting is on the outer, jumps racing is struggling to survive across the Tasman, and sow stalls have been the subject of fierce debate in New Zealand.

Luck, the HBO television series exploring the seedy side of horse-racing, was cancelled this year after the death of a third horse during production. The makers acknowledged, effectively, that they had crossed the line between use and abuse.

Such is the accelerating pace of change in popular attitudes to animal welfare that it is reasonable to ask what other practices may not survive the next decade or two.

Duck-shooting, for example, is already in the sights of activists. So, too, are rodeos and greyhound racing.

The uproar over The Hobbit emphasises that those pursuing such activities should be prepared to go at least some way towards meeting the prevailing sentiment if they want them to endure.

- NZ Herald

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