Photo Credit: flutterfly2002 via Compfight cc
Many of you are probably more than a little familiar with this stamp. It’s probably been seen on many long crawls towards the end of the closing credits. But how many of you are familiar with its organisation the American Humane Association (AHA), its history and its current reputation?
The organisation itself has been around for a long time, since 1877, but the group itself was initially formed out of the Child Protection Movement. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was created 4 years earlier due to the public awareness of an abuse case surrounding a little girl named Mary Ellen Wilson. Multiple organisations had existed serving as the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But both needed a bigger campaign front to put forward their concerns. Thus 4 years later, the International Humane Association was formed, combining the two groups together, along with a number of other advocacy groups across the States. Its name was changed the following year.

But the organisation didn’t have its most notable case of animal cruelty in film production until the production and release of the Henry Fonda film Jesse James (Dir: Henry King, 1939).

The film featuring this infamous shot of a horse with its rider falling off a 70ft cliff resulting in its death (not the rider’s) brought about permissions by the Association of Motion Picture Producers to allow access to the organisation on all film sets that involved animals.

But these permissions would be revoked in 1966 with the disbanding of the Hays Office which granted the group its powers by the Supreme Court. The AHA was still monitoring sets but it often found itself uninvolved. It wouldn’t again have a return of any kind of binding agreement to be present on film and television sets until the production and release of the bleak anti-western Heaven’s Gate (Dir: Michael Cimino, 1980).

The production of the movie was already plagued with problems, going way over budget and over schedule. It was also fraught with the injury and deaths of a multitude of animals used to recreate the film’s elaborate 1890 Johnson County, Wyoming period setting as well as carry out a number of stunts and set pieces. These included cock fighting, gun fights on horseback and a massive Roman style climactic battle. The media tore the film apart, lawsuits were filed and protests were organised at film screenings. The chaos resulted in a deal yet again being struck to allow the AHA to be allowed on film sets through a contractual arrangement with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). It also allowed more expansive powers for the organisation; they were now able to show up without announcement on SAG approved productions and look over production schedules and scripts to analyse potential risks towards the wellbeing of animals.

However in recent years the organisation has come under scrutiny from articles in The Los Angeles Times (http://articles.latimes.com/2001/feb/09/news/mn-23161) and The Hollywood Reporter (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/feature/) which I strongly encourage you to read. Together, they create a narrative that the organisation’s banner “No Animals Were Harmed”, is not quite as clear cut as it suggests. Or occasions when it is rewarded it is done so extremely leniently. Highlighting that some films did in fact have incidents of harm to animals occurring, but the incident occurred off camera when they weren’t rolling, or were not intentional. The reports also suggest that the organisation doesn’t always exercise the massive oversight that it claims and does not wield its authority when it is needed. There are also reports of resisting investigations into reported abuse of animals or doing so half-heartedly. Issues of transparency and cosiness with film studios is also mentioned.

In recent years other animal protection organisations have emerged, including one to directly challenge the AHA by its former head of production titled Movie Animals Protected.