Animal abuse is not something that only happens behind closed doors. In fact, some cases of animal abuse happen right in front of our eyes, on TV screens and while movies are rolling. You might even have watched some of that abuse happening and figured it was just Hollywood magic and special effects.
In fact, that’s not always the case. While the American Humane Association (AHA) monitors films where animals are used, their work has been criticized as “too lax” by other animal protection agencies.
What does that mean? It means sometimes the stamp of “No animals were harmed during the making of this film” doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means.
And yes, animals do get hurt or killed during filmmaking, as these examples will prove. Please note this article includes quotes that contain explicit sexual content.
Life of Pi (2012)
King, the tiger that played the role of Richard Parker in the film The Life of Pi, almost drowned while filming a scene in a water tank. The tank — which was extremely large to simulate the open ocean where the tiger gets lost in the book –proved to be too overwhelming for King, and he got disoriented and exhausted when trying to swim from one side to the other – and almost drowned as a result.
The tiger was eventually rescued by his handler and suffered no permanent injuries.
However, the event generated waves because of the way the news broke out. Turns out Gina Johnson, a representative of AHA was sent to oversee the treatment of the animals, sent out an email to a colleague saying “Damn near drowned. I think this goes without saying but DON’T MENTION THIS TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY THE OFFICE! Have downplayed the f—k out of it.”
The email leaked and of course nobody was happy, especially considering the AHA is supposed to be there to protect the safety and well-being of the animals. Johnson did resign as a result of the scandal, but nothing else happened and the AHA’s only response was to say the email “was an exaggeration.”
Pink Flamingos (1972)
Pink Flamingos feature the death of one single chicken – not as extensive as other films have included and certainly not as bloody. However, the way the chicken dies makes this a despicable film that deserves an inclusion. Why? Because the chicken is killed to be used as a sex toy by one of the characters.
Yes, you read that right.
Director John Waters even defended his action by saying “I think we made the chicken’s life better: Got to be in a movie, got f**d… And then right after filming the next take, the cast ate the chicken.”
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
An epic Western film directed by Michael Cimino, Heaven’s Gate was a nightmare for AHA, which was kicked off of the set. The result? Picketing of the film’s screenings and a lot of bad publicity for Cimino. The AHA even issued an international press release asking people to boycott the film.
Why? Because the film resulted not only in injury, but also the death of several animals, including the decapitation of a chicken, the disemboweling of a cow and the killing of five horses – one of which was accidentally blown up with dynamite during a scene. In addition, several other horses were injured and intentionally bled by cutting their necks and Cimino staged several cockfighting scenes. One of the horse’s owners sued Cimino for abuse and cruelty, but the case was settled out of court.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
The Italian film, directed by Ruggero Deodato, is a found-footage film about a documentary crew who gets lost in the Amazon when searching for cannibal tribes.
The movie is still considered one of the most violent movies of all time, and includes images of rape, bloody deaths, and, of course, cannibalism. But what many movie fans don’t know about is that while the violence against actors is fake, animals in the film weren’t as lucky.
The most infamous scene? One where a sea turtle is dismembered alive and then decaptitated right in front of the cameras. Other deaths include three animals killed with a machete: a snake, a tarantula and a squirrel monkey (which was decapitated right in front of the camera). A pig is also shot in the head during the filming and a coatis – a South American animal similar to a muskrat – is stabbed to death.
There were seven additional animals killed off screen to stage scenes, including two monkeys shot to death for the same scene (filmed twice) that never made it into the final cut.
Ben Hur (1925)
Horses were routinely harmed or killed in old films, but 1925’s Ben-Hur deserves a dishonorable mention in this list because of its blatant abuse.
Over 100 horses died during the filming of Ben-Hur, mostly due to heat exposure during the filming of the chariot race scene. Turns out the scene was a particularly tough to film, so the director kept redoing some shots over and over, and the exhausted animals just couldn’t take it. In addition, horses were shot if they started to limp or showed signs of injury – simply because it was cheaper and faster to replace them than to deal with the problem.
Luck was one of HBO’s most anticipated new series of 2012, thanks to big names like Dustin Hoffman, David Milch, and Nick Nolte being attached to the production. Despite a promising start, however, the show lasted only one full season.
Why? Because the death of two thoroughbred horses during filming hit the news, darkening what could have been an interesting show. The horses died during the filming of a racing scene, but the director quickly dismissed the event as “something that happens in real races all the time.” Then, while filming the beginning of season two, a third horse suffered horrific head injuries and had to be euthanized.
Luck was promptly cancelled after that.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
In November 2012, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) contacted New Zealand authorities and asked them to “investigate and pursue appropriate criminal charges if warranted.” The reason? PETA claimed to have inside knowledge of 27 animals being severely injured or dying during the making of The Hobbit.
The most serious incident involves the death of three horses, one of which died when it fell off an embankment. The other died while placed with a strung gelding, while the third horse died as a result of colic after being fed the wrong food. A third horse was seriously injured during a fall, and a fourth suffered rope burns when his legs were tied together because he was “too energetic.”
Goats and sheep were injured or died because of the conditions of the housing facilities, which led to worm infestations and bones being broken as animals stepped into holes. Several chickens were trampled or killed by a dog roaming the production area.
Director Peter Jackson and the AHA deny the charges, saying no animals died during the actual filming. However, claims of death due to poor housing and handling conditions have not been addressed.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Apocalypse Now is a film commonly mentioned when talking about onscreen animal abuse. Not because it constitutes the worst case of animal abuse ever filmed, but because it happened in a movie considered a masterpiece of modern cinema.
Near the end of the movie, an ox is killed onscreen by an indigenous tribe using machetes. Not only is the death very graphic, but it’s also very real, and you can see and hear the animal’s suffering as it dies right in front of the cameras.
Director Francis Ford Coppola argued the ox was going to die anyway because the locals had decided to sacrifice it, so he just took advantage of the event and put it on film. A poor excuse for abuse in the eyes of animal lovers.
Zookeeper is a comedy starring Kevin James as a unlucky-in-love worker. In the film, the happy animals help James find love while keeping hilarious conversations with each other.
The not-so-funny part of the movie? Turns out an 18-year-old giraffe died during filming.
At first, it was unclear how and why the giraffe died, but animal-right groups were soon blaming the trainers, who have been cited more than once by the “Department of Agriculture for animal welfare violations,” according to an article in Delta Films, a website featuring movie news.
Turns out the giraffe apparently died after accidentally eating some blue tarp the crew had used to cover his enclosure during filming.
Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)
Electrocuting an Elephant deserves a mention for many reasons. For starters, it’s the first ever killing of an animal caught on film. Plus, the film was especially made to show the death of the elephant, making it even more despicable.
The reason? Well, Thomas Edison was at the time experimenting with electricity and he wanted to show just how powerful and effective his invention was. So he used Topsy, a circus elephant that had been sentenced to death for retaliating against abuse at the hands of its handlers.
While the original plan was to kill Topsy privately, Edison convinced the circus to let him film the death by electrocution, arguing it would be a more “humane” way of killing the elephant anyway.
Edison did make the film – and then showed it to audiences all around the country.