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Susan Orlean

Animal Action

According to the American Humane guidelines, no animal actor should have to work like a dog. For instance, if an ape is on set for more than three consecutive days the production must provide a play area or a private park where the ape can exercise and relax. When a bear is working on a film, anything that produces smells that might bother the bear -- cheap perfume, strong liquor, jelly doughnuts -- must be removed from the location. Only cats that like dogs should be cast in cat-and-dog movies. No individual fish can do more than three takes in a day. Also, under no circumstances can a nonhuman cast member be squished. This rule applies to all nonhuman things, including cockroaches. Karen Rosa, the director of American Humane's Film and Television Unit, was discussing this particular guideline one day last summer. "If you show up on set with twenty-five thousand cockroaches, you better leave with twenty-five thousand cockroaches," she said. I wondered if she extended the same welcome to cockroaches at home. "A cockroach in my kitchen is one thing," Rosa said. "A cockroach in a movie is an actor. Like any other actor, it deserves to go home at the end of the day."

The Film and Television Unit headquarters are in Sherman Oaks, about twenty minutes from Hollywood, in a squat concrete building shaded by a highway overpass and a stand of gnarled banyan trees. The place is as homely as an orthodontist's office, although it is decorated with movie posters and a nice photograph of Francis the Mule. A wire-haired, baby-faced mutt named Lulu has the run of the office, and staff members wander in and out between visits to soundstages and locations. There are thirty full-time and part-time field representatives of the Film and Television Unit, which is the official monitor of animals in all Screen Actors Guild productions. Keeping an eye on animal actors is a mighty undertaking. In the past twelve months, more than fourteen hundred SAG scripts included some kind of animal action, ranging from ants in a television picnic scene to movies featuring hundreds of horses. During the week I spent with Film and Television Unit staff, there were tigers doing insert shots for "The Last Samurai"; owls, cats, rats, and dogs working on "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"; a miniature horse doing a guest appearance on "That '70s Show"; full-sized horses at work in "Around the World in 80 Days," "On the One," and "Deadwood"; a frog shooting scenes for "Cinderella"; some deer working on "Thumbsucker"; cats and dogs rehearsing for the sequel to "The Truth About Cats and Dogs"; and spiders auditioning for "Constantine." The Film and Television Unit keeps track of all of these. Even fake animals and dead animals are the unit's responsibility. If animals used in a movie are frozen or stuffed or shown as a food product -- say, a haunch of beef -- the unit requires proof that they showed up on set that way.

Most of the people who work for the Film and Television Unit are former veterinary technicians or zookeepers or horse trainers; many are graduates of the Moorpark College Exotic Animal Training and Management Program, in Moorpark, California, which bills itself as "America's Teaching Zoo." Even though the Film and Television reps spend their days reading scripts and visiting locations, they think of themselves as being in the animal business rather than in the movie business, much the way that barbers in the Navy probably think of themselves as being in the hair business rather than in the boat business. The truth is actually somewhere in between: being part of the Hollywood animal world is a slightly bizarre confection that affords you such insights as the fact that Cameron Diaz is really good with monkeys and that Wilma the alligator, after a long career in medium-budget films, is now a taxidermied entryway ornament in Brockett's Film Fauna, in Thousand Oaks. One morning, I asked a field rep who supervises movies featuring horses of she liked having a job where she got to know a lot of movie stars. She thought about it for a moment and then said, "You know, it's been great, because I feel really attached to some of them. There's Rusty, who is one of my favorites, and there's Johnny, and one I really, really like named Pumpkin."

Animals used to have a rotten time in Hollywood. The few animals who were stars did get deluxe treatment -- Rin Tin Tin, for instance, had his own valet and chauffeur, and Jackie the Lion, who appeared in silent films with Mae West, Mack Sennett, and Gloria Swanson, lived on a diet of prime beef and vanilla ice cream. But background animals were considered cheap, accommodating, disposable props rather than living things. Horses got the roughest treatment: they were tripped, shocked, raced into open trenches, run ragged. To make a horse fall on cue, wires were strung around its ankles or threaded through holes drilled in its hooves so that the rider could just yank the wires and pull the horse up short. In 1924, six horses were killed during the filming of "Ben-Hur"; in 1935, a hundred and twenty-five horses were wire-tripped in "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and twenty-five of them were killed or had to be euthanized. Four years later, in the Henry Fonda movie "Jesse James," a blindfolded horse was ridden onto a greased chute teetering on a high cliff above Lake of the Ozarks and then pushed out of the chute in order to get a shot of a cowboy on horseback jumping into the lake. The horse broke his back and had to be destroyed. Only the first frames of the shot were used in the film, but the entire sequence of the animal -- hunched, helpless, stiff-legged -- plunging toward the water is nightmarish. American Humane, which had been founded in the late nineteenth century as an animal- and child-welfare organization, reviewed the footage and circulated a report reproaching the movie industry for its practices. The next year, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (which later changed its name to the Motion Picture Association of America) added a section to its production code prohibiting the use of tilt chutes and trip wires, and American Humane opened a Hollywood office to enforce the new standards. Besides supervising the care of animals on sets, it also promoted animal actors: in 1951, it instituted the Performing Animal Top Star of the Year award -- Francis the Mule was the first PATSY winner -- and, in 1973, it created the Animal Actor's Hall of Fame, whose first inductee was Lassie.

In retrospect, provisions for animal care on movie sets was a strange fit with the production code, which concerned itself with the content of films rather than with the process of filmmaking by laying out restrictions on nudity, kiss duration, and the use of risque; words like "hell" and "tomcat" onscreen. In the nineteen-fifties, a series of Supreme Court rulings challenged the constitutionality of the production code on First Amendment grounds, and this led to the dissolution of the Hays Office, the censorship arm of the M. P.A. A., which administered the code. It also had the unintended consequence of ending American Humane's authority to supervise animal care on film sets. After the closing of the Hays Office, a few productions still allowed American Humane representatives on set, but most did not. There were still hundreds of movies and television shows being made that featured animals -- in fact, it was a boom period for Westerns -- and, according to Rosa, standards of animal safety were even lower than in the years before the M. P.A. A. code was established. "Missouri Breaks," "Heaven's Gate," and "Apocalypse Now," for instance, all had incidents in which animals were killed; "Heaven's Gate" featured real cockfights, and chickens were decaptiated for the use of their blood.

In the late seventies, actors and crew members began agitating to have standards reinstated. "Hollywood, once cruel to its animal actors, has learned the far-reaching value of a lump of sugar and a pat on the nose....My pet palomino, Trigger . . . the most perfectly trained equine in films today, has not been subjected to cruelty," Roy Rogers wrote in an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Examiner in support of monitoring the film industry. "He has been handled with kindness, intelligence and patience.... After Trigger and I complete a scene I always have a chat with him. And I think he knows what I say. Gene Autry's horse, Champion, Tex Ritter's horse, Flash, and Bill Elliott's horse, Thunder, also probably know what Gene and Tex and Bill have said to them. These horses don't know cruelty." The agitation finally had results: in 1980, the Screen Actors Guild/Producer's Agreement was amended to include rules requiring the proper treatment of animals, and American Humane was once again authorized to oversee animal actors in film, television, commercials, and music videos, and to issue, or withhold, the trademarked end credit "No animals were harmed in the making of this film."

A lot of people think that American Humane oversees the content of movies instead of just the way they're made. "We get tons of calls and e-mails complaining about what's in movies," Karen Rosa said. "People don't understand that we're not telling producers what the movie should be about. We're just watching to see how it gets done." After a mouse was stomped to death in "The Green Mile," the Film and Television Unit received dozens of calls, although its Web site detailed the use of stuffed and computer-generated mice in the stomping scene. Sometimes, though, even the Film and Television Unit staff are fooled. After supervising the production of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," Rosa and her staff watched a final cut of the movie and were horrified to see a scene of a cow being hit by a truck. When she called the producers to object, they were delighted, because, as they explained to Rosa, the scene was computer-generated, and they figured that if they'd fooled the Film and Television Unit they had done a good job. The movie got an "Acceptable" rating from American Humane; the review on the Web site goes to great lengths to explain the scene: "One of the cows appears to be hit by the car and falls down. This sequence was accomplished by attaching a cable to the car so that no contact was ever made with the animals. In fact, the car is never less than 25 feet away from the cows. When the cable is pulled, the car comes to a hard stop, creating the effect of hitting an object. The cow was actually computer generated in post production."

American Humane's authority extends only to SAG productions; independent and foreign films are outside its reach. Even though following its guidelines can be very expensive, producers want the "No animals were harmed" end credit and a positive review on its Web site, which is seen by almost half a million people a month. Before releasing Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her" in this country, Sony asked American Humane to review it even though the studio knew that it would not get an end credit, because the movie includes actual bullfighting scenes. It was an unusual circumstance: the bullfighting scenes were "documentary" -- that is, they were shot at the graduation ceremony at a bullfighting school in Spain that was taking place regardless of the filmmaking, and not a fight that was staged for the purposes of the film. Also, bullfighting is not considered animal cruelty in Spain. Still, there was no doubt that animals were harmed in the film: the bulls shown are real, and they did die. "We gave it a 'Questionable' rating," Rosa said. "There wasn't really anything else we could do."

The Film and Television Unit has an annual budget of just $1.5 million, which used to be raised through grants and donations. Since 1991, all the funding has come from the Screen Actors Guild, which counts directors and producers among its members. This means that the reps are subsidized by the very people they are monitoring and sometimes forcing to spend money they probably don't want to spend. Proper care for worms on a set, as dictated by American Humane guidelines, can be thousands of dollars a day, while using them in a shot and then tossing them out costs nothing. Several reps told me of incidents in which a producer growled at them about the money that their safeguards were costing. Rosa waves off the question of conflict. "The industry should support us," she said. "They have lots of money and we don't. We shouldn't have to compete for grant money that should be going to neutering programs and shelters." The budget is skin-tight, and the number of productions that the Film and Television Unit oversees has grown every year, particularly since the expansion of cable, satellite television, and independent films.

In the past, local humane associations subcontracted with American Humane to cover movies shot outside the country. One of these, a family film called "Running Free," was shot in 1999 in South Africa under the supervision of the Animal Anti-Cruelty League of Johannesburg. The group vouched for the animals' treatment, but it also reported that four horses had died during the film's production and that shock collars were used to control others. American Humane gave the movie a "Believed Acceptable" rating -- one notch below the usual "Acceptable," but the review on its Web site makes no mention of the deaths or the shock collars.

Partly as a result of "Running Free," the Film and Television Unit now uses only field reps it has trained. It sends reps around the world to cover locations and has employees on call in Australia and England. Rosa hopes eventually to add reps in Africa and Europe. "We have to keep up," she said. "This is very high-profile. It sets a standard. And we have to keep current on new information. Right now, I'm looking into the new science that's coming out on whether fish feel pain in their lips. It's always been assumed that they don't, so we've permitted the use of barbless hooks in fishing scenes. If it turns out that they do actually feel pain, we'll have a lot of people in the industry pissed off when we tell them they no longer can put a real fish on a hook."

Overseeing a film like "Soccer Dog: European Cup" is a pretty soft assignment for a Film and Television Unit rep. The movie involved no snakes being milked (not allowed by American Humane guidelines); no chickens stacked in containers that permitted the birds to defecate on one another (not allowed); no six-horse hitches in front of cannon fire; no arachnids having their physical characteristics permanently altered; and no apes being asked to perform near an animatronic object or a costumed person such as a clown to which the apes had not been first allowed to become accustomed (all forbidden). Unlike movies such as "Far and Away," which had a thousand horses in a single shot that took three weeks to set up, or "The Horse Whisperer," which had such difficult horse scenes that the Film and Television Unit field rep spent a year consulting with the producer before shooting even started, "Soccer Dog: European Cup," the sequel to "Soccer Dog," is a low-key family film with what the reps call "moderate action," requiring nothing more demanding than having the leading dog bounce a ball on its nose. The precautions necessary for the dogs would be considerably less expensive and complicated than those for, say, flies or maggots, which have to be accounted for after each shot.

The person assigned to the movie was Netta Bank, a graduate of the Moorpark program, who has been with American Humane for twelve years. Bank is small and trim and has dark pixie-cut hair. She lives in Simi Valley with a parrot and five dogs, four of whom are decommissioned actors (one had a role in "As Good as It Gets"), but in fact Bank is more of a monkey person. Her major at Moorpark was sheep, parrots, baboons, and pigtail macaques. She once was a contestant on "To Tell the Truth," impersonating her hero, the orangutan specialist Birute Galdikas. "If there's a chimp job, they think of me first," Bank likes to say. She has worked on dozens of movies, some chimp and some not, and carries around an alphabetical list of them which starts with "Anger Management" and ends with "What Lies Beneath," "Wild Bill," and "Wolf."

This particular day was the fourth of the "Soccer Dog" shoot, and we were on an elementary-school playing field in the Los Angeles suburb of Rancho Palos Verdes, which for the purposes of the movie was standing in for a small town in Scotland. After driving to the set, Bank put her folding director's chair, her shade umbrella, and her snacks in a grassy area near the animal trainer's truck, and then she started filling out American Humane paperwork, which requires a scene-by-scene accounting of what the animals did, how they were induced to do it, and what safety precautions were in place. Another field rep, Ed Lish, had dropped by to watch some of the filming; he was on his way home from checking on Johnny, a horse starring in "Deadwood." Lish is an American Humane officer as well as a Film and Television Unit rep, so he was dressed in a khaki uniform and was carrying a badge. Lish grew up on a ranch in Idaho and likes working with horses. "I hate doing the chimp jobs," Lish said. "They scream too damn much. Dogs are fine, too, although the worst job I ever did was that musher movie 'Iron Will.' Have you ever been around sled dogs? Those dogs are the goddam fightingest dogs I've ever seen."

The stars of "Soccer Dog," however, were a couple of pacifists. The lead was played by a mongrel with searching green eyes named Chip; a nervous cairn terrier named Ernie played the bad guy. Roger Schumacher, their owner and trainer, had worked with American Humane on a batch of other movies, including "The Grinch," "Annie," "The Hulk," "Benji," "S.W.A.T," and "Kill Bill." Schumacher has been part of the Hollywood animal world his entire life: his father was an animal trainer, and he started working professionally with dogs in 1972. Like most of the people who procure animals for movies and television, Schumacher owns almost all the animals he uses. He has a kennel of twenty-five dogs; most of them, including Chip, are rescues from the shelters. Schumacher worked on the first "Soccer Dog" movie and had helped the producer select Chip for the sequel.

Usually, producers hire a trainer first and the animal second, which is the equivalent of hiring an agent and acting coach first and the actor second. When it comes to casting, producers sometimes let the trainer choose the animal; other times, they have a request so precise and improbable that it sounds like a punch line. One trainer told me recently that he had been asked to find a longhaired dachshund that knew how to run on a treadmill. "It was so frustrating," the trainer said. "I already had a Jack Russell who knew how to do it! But the producer was stuck on the idea of a longhaired dachshund. What could I do?" If the trainer doesn't already own the kind of animal the producer wants, he or she will sometimes swap with another trainer. Earlier in the week, I had been talking to someone in the Hollywood animal business who was working on a movie that needed pigeons. He specialized in primates, so he borrowed pigeons from a colleague who was big in birds. He said it had worked out nicely, because a few weeks later the bird guy needed to borrow some of his baboons.

When we arrived on the "Soccer Dog" set, Chip was getting ready for a scene that required him to walk up a ramp and open the door of a Port-a-Potty, look to make sure there weren't any bad guys inside, and then step in, letting the door slam behind him. Netta Bank examined the Port-a-Potty and the ramp and determined that they were both safe for Chip. Schumacher ran through the scene with the dog and then told the director that they were ready to go. On the first take, Chip went up the ramp too quickly -- a tendency that Schumacher had told me was Chip's greatest limitation as an actor. The second take didn't work, because the door caught a breeze and swung open rather than shutting behind him. Then the director realized that the camera was catching Chip at an unflattering angle. "We're going to have to reset a little," he said to the cinematographer, pointing to Chip's tail. "Can we avoid making this too much of an anus shot, please?" On the third take, Chip nudged the door open, paused as if he were really considering whether to go in or not, and then stepped inside. The door flapped shut behind him. "Perfect," the director called out. "Nice work, Chip."

While the next shot was being set up, Schumacher came over to talk to Netta Bank. He was leading a fat yellow Labrador retriever that he was training for the upcoming James Brooks movie "Spanglish." Unlike Chip, who was the backup in "The Grinch" and "Annie," or Ernie, who had a long-running role on "George Lopez," the Labrador retriever was not a professional actor. He was on loan from a private owner, an arrangement that animal trainers do not favor, but he was the only dog Schumacher could find with the right kind of sweet, goofy face that Brooks was looking for.

"Be sure to write down that I beat my dogs, Netta," Schumacher said.

"You know I will," Bank answered. "I'm writing an incident report on you, Roger."

The fat Lab burped. "Let's go," Schumacher said to the dog. He said he needed to teach the dog to walk backward, so he wanted to start working on it while the crew was moving equipment for the next shot. Ernie was resting in a crate in Schumacher's truck, and Chip was playing nearby with Schumacher's daughter. He is actually a white dog with tan patches, but for the movie he had been dyed blond. He is a small, fluffy animal with a Teddy-bear face, long legs, and ears that fold over at the tips, like little paper airplanes. Suddenly, one of the extras ran over and put her arms around him. Bank jumped to her feet.

"Don't handle the dog," she said in a loud voice.

"But I'm a professional masseuse," the woman said. "I just wanted to give him a massage."

"Do not handle the dog," Bank repeated. "He's working."

"I think he knows I'm a masseuse," the woman said, looking crestfallen.

"Maybe so," Bank said. "But he's working."

 
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