Animal stress not in Hobbit script

By Susan Edmunds

The volcanoes of Mordor are erupting right on cue for this week's Hobbit premiere, but the animals have been the problem. Director Sir Peter Jackson is learning the hard way: never work with children or animals. Susan Edmunds reports.

Mark Vette says training animals is not easy. Photo / Michael Craig
Mark Vette says training animals is not easy. Photo / Michael Craig

Johnny Smythe has just come in from a morning's shearing when he answers the phone at his home.

He lives on what Aucklanders call a lifestyle block, but he calls it his five acres. The Kaitieke property is surrounded by forestry plots and rests in the shadow of erupting Mt Tongariro.

The billowing ash of Mordor could be a metaphor for his life at the moment. The guys on his shearing gang are going easy on their mate - he's being hounded by international media, keen for a piece of The Hobbit's whistleblower.

His gang has to shear 2000 sheep in two days and the longer he talks to journalists the less time he'll spend in the heat of the shearing shed.

"Talk as long as you like," he laughs.

Smythe has grown up with shearing. Riding horses and shearing for a living, life on the outskirts of Taumarunui was about as far from Hollywood as you could imagine.

It was only by accident he was called into the bright lights of international film sets. Horse wrangler neighbour Ian Duff needed some animals for The Last Samurai. He asked Smythe if he could use a couple of his horses.

When he returned them, he handed an astonished Smythe a couple of thousand dollars.

Smythe asked him: "If the horses earn that, what do you earn?"

Duff replied: "Put it this way, I'm buying a new horse truck."

Two years later, Duff was heading off to work on 10,000 BC, and Smythe jumped at the chance to go with him.

But this year, Smythe's growing horse-wrangling career has fallen, by his own admission, around his ears.

He and three other wranglers spoke out about unacceptable conditions they said the horses were being kept under as The Hobbit was filmed. They said animals were being mistreated and neglected. In response, Smythe was accused of threatening behaviour and sour grapes over losing his job.

The wranglers said 27 animals died because they were housed on a dangerous farm full of death traps, including bluffs, sinkholes and jagged fencing.

Smythe claims he was fired after raising his concerns.

The allegations to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in the United States sparked a furore. Jackson's spokesman rejected allegations of mistreatment but acknowledged two horses died unnecessarily during filming. The production company acted quickly, he said, upgrading the animal housing in 2011 at a cost of thousands of dollars.

A representative of the American Humane Association (AHA) investigated the farm in late 2011 and recommended improvements to the animals' living areas.

"The production company followed our recommendations and upgraded fence and farm housing, among other things."

Animals in films are big business. Smythe says the budget for animals was at least $1 million for The Hobbit.

But who keeps an eye on them is the question.

Big-budget US films require an American Humane Association representative on the set at all times - and at high cost. But Kiwi films are covered only by the Animal Welfare Act.

The Hobbit allegations prompted calls for monitoring, away from the lights and cameras, at the farms, kennels and catteries where the animals live.

The SPCA would like to do it in New Zealand. The AHA, a non-profit organisation that has monitored welfare since 1940, is asking for its powers to be extended on films made by US firms.

The question is why are film productions being targeted when there are dozens of other New Zealand industries where animals are at greater risk of injury? Is it just because - as The Hobbit director Peter Jackson is discovering - they are rich, easy, high-profile targets?


Claudelands Showgrounds was abuzz with activity on Friday.

To prepare for the weekend's rodeo in Hamilton, organisers trucked in 400 sheets of plywood, and 38 truckloads of dirt. The arena has to be assembled from scratch before the animals - the stars of the show - arrive. Organiser Fred Docherty is expecting another sellout crowd of 4000 including an SPCA inspector.

Changes are being made to how the SPCA administers animal welfare law, says RNZSPCA national chief executive Robyn Kippenberger. The Ministry of Primary Industries has already tackled rodeos and circuses.

Codes of conduct have been issued and rodeos must have an animal welfare officer, who can be a member of the club, and a vet on site at all times.

SPCA inspector Alan Wilson says inspectors regularly visit rodeos to check they comply with the code and follow guidelines.

"Provided they comply, they are a lawful activity."

The inspectors are not paid to attend the rodeos. They go, says Kippenberger, because they do not agree with rodeos and want to keep a close eye on them so they will eventually be banned.

Being on the scene lets them collect information and help in cases where animals are hurt.

"It's part of our animal welfare role because we believe things can happen that are against the animal welfare laws."

There is no formal contract with the MPI, she says, and it is more of an inspectorate role than the paid auditor role the SPCA proposes for the film industry.

Kippenberger says Jackson told her he was very interested in establishing guidelines for the use of animals on film and television in New Zealand. She wants a system similar to that used by the SPCA to audit for humane farming. SPCA farm audits cost between $500 and $900. Kippenberger says they should be done in areas intended to house film animals. Guidelines should cover how they should be cared for and who should be involved.

Kippenberger says animal wranglers should be police checked. SPCA inspectors would visit any time there were concerns about animal welfare. If it was more than a day's work the film company would be asked to reimburse the SPCA for the inspector's time. Some were volunteers and others worked for "pathetic" wages.

"We're not talking about anything hugely expensive."


PETA is planning a protest outside The Hobbit's Wellington premiere next week.

This week's publicity has been massive for the animal welfare charity, better known for haranguing American and European movie stars and socialites who wear fur coats in public.

Claire Fryer, Australia and New Zealand campaign co-ordinator for PETA, says The Hobbit animal deaths were the first New Zealand incident she was aware of, but PETA had seen cases before.

A US series, Luck, was cancelled because of publicity around the deaths of horses involved.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter got an "outstanding" rating by the AHA but the association admitted it had not monitored all the filming. PETA reported drugging and the rating was downgraded.

Fryer says the AHA was on set for The Hobbit's filming at significant expense to the production firm, but the animals were not monitored when they were not in front of the cameras.

The Hobbit case has taken up a lot of PETA's time over recent weeks.

"It's highlighted the level at which it can still occur. Neglect on a set that is literally a multi-million dollar production is very concerning."

But Kippenberger says PETA has backed the wrong horse.

"They've jumped on this. PETA do nothing about animal welfare in this country but they chose to back someone who is an unreliable person."

The SPCA first heard about the claims on November 6, in an anonymous letter alleging mistreatment between January and August, 2011.

It alerted Jackson and the AHA and sent an SPCA inspector to the farm.

Kippenberger is confident there is nothing in the allegations.

"Animals do perish. They perish on farms all the time. This guy waited a considerable amount of time to report this and even then only because he had lost his job."

Jackson says animals had died but there was no mistreatment.

"The production regrets that PETA has chosen to make such a serious accusation, which has distressed many of the dedicated Kiwis who worked with animals on the films - including trainers, wranglers, caregivers, farm workers and animal health care professionals - without properly vetting the source from which it received this information."


Wrangler Mark Vette and his company have trained animals for everything from the Toyota "bugger" dog to the Genesis pukeko, as well as working on big movie projects such as last year's Love Birds - for which they trained 27 ducks.

He says the AHA is nothing if not stringent. On the set of The Last Samurai, a chicken became ill. The AHA wanted to know which chicken it was, when it was going to the vet, what the vet said and what medication it was given. A week later it checked the chicken was back to normal.

Vette says incidents in pre-production would result in vet reports and a requirement for post mortem.

"The AHA will give a full report on the accident and give it a clearance or non-clearance. If they don't clear it, it could influence the 'no animals were harmed' message.

"There is always the possibility of accidents but the regulations around animal welfare are more stringent than around human welfare."

But for Kiwi productions, having an expert on hand is voluntary and horse trainer Anna Low says very few productions would have one.

"The production company pays for the monitoring, and it's expensive. New Zealand productions are much more low-budget, they choose not to have one."

Vette has thousands of animals on his books at his animal training firm, Animals on Q. He says his business has three or four projects every week.

"We probably turn over about 200 jobs a year. Within that there'll be a couple of movies, two might be big ones."

It's a lot of work, much of it before filming even starts. The Genesis pukeko was picked up from bird rescue and hand reared. It had a month of training before two days of shooting.

Karen Sadler, of Agrade Animals, worked on Bridge to Terabithia. She wants good-tempered animals which can cope with the film environment.

"You wouldn't get one that was going to get stressed or worried. Most animal trainers do a lot of work with the animals before going on set."

Smythe says that did not happen for the Hobbit. He says horses were picked off Trade Me and their owners convinced by the production company's big chequebook.

Animals in a production are not cheap. An elephant will cost up to $50,000. Even a dog can cost up to $10,000 per shoot day and up to $5000 a week for training.

AHA representatives must be on set for the filming of any movie produced by a US production company. That costs the production company about $500 a day. Risky scenes require a vet costing about $700 a day.

Sadler says she is used to having a welfare officer follow her all day.

"It's their job to make sure animals don't get overheated, don't work too long and are well looked after."

Protection for animals on set are mostly bound up in the Animal Welfare Act. SPCA Auckland executive director Bob Kerridge says that provides good protection for animals in distress.

Animal welfare inspectors have powers to inspect incidents where they think animals are being mistreated.

For day-to day scrutiny, there was a move 20 years ago to establish a committee to monitor animals in film and television productions. "The Hobbit has highlighted that we need to reactivate that."

PETA wants the problem solved by taking animals out of movies altogether and wants Jackson to stop using live animals in filming.


Back in Kaitieke, Johnny Smythe is waiting for the volcanic dust to settle and is getting ready to return to shearing.

He looks forward to a beer at the end of it - his reward for the hard slog that earns him far less than he earned from Jackson.

It is too soon to tell if he will trade the shearing shed for the red carpet this week.

He says if the production company sack the head animal wrangler on set, he'll support the film. If not ...

Amid the heat of the past week, the only players who haven't had a say are the animals.

Smythe says he's always had a strong bond with animals and knows when they're distressed. Horses that are cramped up on set will start panting, swishing their tails, stomping their feet. He says 27 was a lot of animals to die but no one asked why.

He took his own horses out of the production because there were too many kept in cramped conditions.

His favourite, a 31-year-old dun mare, won't be tempted in front of the cameras but always comes running when she hears his voice.

"She always wants to see what I've got for her."

- Herald on Sunday

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