Actors. They shed. They sniff the crew. Sometimes they even start scratching themselves in the middle of a scene.
Oh, sorry. I forgot to mention that we’re talking about animal actors.
Lassie, Trigger, Flipper---all animal characters whose presence on-screen have left an indelible mark on the hearts and memories of fans around the world.
Sure, not all animal characters are single-name superstars like those listed above. But whether they’re a character we immediately recognize or an unnamed animal who pushes the narrative forward, they all play a pivotal role in creating stories that we love.
They're also living, breathing beings, which is why every actor—even the ones with scales, fur, or feathers—deserves to be treated with the utmost respect and care during production.
Enter: the on-set animal safety experts.
If you’re a producer, you may have worked with one of these folks in the past, or may in the near future.
Wrapbook was fortunate enough to speak with Jone Bouman, the National Director of the Animal Protection Agency, and our very own Head of Labor Paul Schoeman about how animal safety in Hollywood became a requisite part of production work, and what producers can expect with an animal safety consultant on set.
Let’s get into it.
If you’re the type of person who enjoys sitting through the closing credits of a movie, you likely know the disclaimer “no animals were harmed in the making of this film.”
How did that come about? Why do we include that disclaimer at all in the end crawl?
The unfortunate truth is that the welfare of animals on set was not always a consideration to filmmakers. Change only came about when human actors decided to stick up for their furry, scaly, and feathered friends.
Once enough actors and actresses put down their collective feet and said that enough was enough, they made some serious progress.
Written into the SAG contract was language stipulating protections for animal actors that would be enforced by the first of the animal safety organizations to come into existence—the Animal Humane Association (AHA).
The language mandated that the AHA would receive a copy of the script and access to the set.
If the production wanted that end crawl disclaimer, it would first need the approval of the AHA.
Since those early days of enforcing animal safety on set, other organizations have formed—including the Animal Protection Agency—to provide those same protections to animal actors.
Let’s say you come aboard a project and learn that there’s a scene—or several scenes—with a dog, cat, horse, pig…now what?
In addition to making sure an animal is being treated properly on set, you need it to perform, too.
Which is why Jone Bouman, of the Animal Protection Agency, states that the first person a producer or production supervisor will likely be calling is an animal trainer.
A trainer can source the animal that’s right for your production’s needs and direct that animal to an Oscar-winning performance. (Okay, no Oscars yet for animals, but we’re hopeful that might change one day!)
Also, fun fact: A majority of the dogs and cats in films are adopted from shelters or rescues. One of the most famous of all is Benji, a shelter rescue, and the dog who inspired a million shelter adoptions when the original film was released in 1974!
Once an animal trainer is secured, it’s time to reach out to an animal safety consultant.
Bouman mentions that while the Animal Protection Agency does have professional relationships with a number of animal trainers, and some of them may refer a production to the APA, a producer or production supervisor will have to take it upon themselves to make that call.
Most people (we hope) have a fundamental understanding of what you do or don’t do to keep an animal safe. So why does a production need to have an animal safety consultant on set?
Bouman notes that the individuals selected to represent the Animal Protection Agency go through a rigorous vetting process where they must demonstrate detailed animal knowledge of multiple species that goes well beyond the basics of giving them food and water.
These animal safety consultants understand the finer intricacies of animal behavior and psychology, which allows them to anticipate how an animal might respond in a particular on-set situation and make recommendations should they believe that those circumstances might be harmful to that animal.
They also can jump in should any unexpected issues arise where others may not know how best to protect and care for the animal.
Beyond their extensive animal knowledge, though, animal safety consultants also understand the world of production. They have the expertise necessary to not only look out for the animal’s best interests, but also know on-set basics – like not walking in front of the camera during a take!
It’s these unique combined skillsets of an animal safety consultant that can ensure the animal gives a safe, successful performance under the unique conditions that come with being on set.
Ahead of the shoot, a script must be provided to the animal safety consultant so that they can analyze the scenes where the animal is present to identify whether the animal action during the production is considered mild, moderate, or intense.
For context, mild animal action might be a cat napping on a couch during a scene. Intense animal action might be several horses galloping together for a western.
And moderate? Somewhere in between those other two scenarios, like a dog herding sheep in a scene.
This also begins the animal safety expert’s job of seeing if animal welfare protocols are in place to ensure that the animal in question will be treated humanely during the production and have the care that they deserve.
Be sure to inform the consultant of the dates well ahead of time. This way, they're aware of when the animal is expected to be present for their scenes.
Animal safety organizations may have differing regulations, their goal is the same---to protect animals on set. Bouman states that the Animal Protection Agency makes it a point to have its animal safety consultants on set for every single scene of animal action.
It makes sense. After all, if that consultant is not present to observe all that takes place involving the animal, they cannot confidently give their approval for the production as a whole.
For the producer or production supervisor in charge of the animal actor, they should expect to have the animal safety consultant present the entirety of the time that the animal is used for the project.
In an ideal world, the animal safety consultant would arrive on set, and all scenes with the animal would be completed safely with no recommendations necessary.
But we’re in the real world.
It’s not that your production would intentionally ever create an environment that’s harmful to an animal. But as Bouman states, it’s often just a matter of them not being animal safety experts and not realizing that there are potentially dangerous issues on set. Not to mention, everyone is insanely busy, all of the time.
Example---let’s say you’re working with a horse.
A horse can be six feet tall (or more) and weigh over 2,000 pounds.
But, did you know that this imposing, majestic animal can scare easily by a snake?
Now while you probably aren’t going to see many snakes on the average set outside of a Raiders of the Lost Ark remake, what you will see are many, many electrical cords.
To a horse, a cord might look – and move – just like a snake.
An animal safety consultant will notify their contact on set that those cords need to be secured and/or hidden for the horse’s safety. And here’s where the compliance part comes in…it’s the responsibility of that contact to immediately address the consultant’s concerns and follow their recommendation before the production proceeds.
That’s just one example of what might come up on a set.
While the director is working with their human actors, the cinematographer is setting up for the next shot, and everyone else is doing their respective jobs on a shoot, so too is the animal safety consultant.
It’s their job – and their only job – to be the voice for the animal.
It’s their responsibility to note every single instance that may prove harmful for the animal on set. That could be rogue electrical cords, it could be making the animal do too many takes within too short a period, it could even be a set that’s too warm for the animal’s comfort level.
The animal safety expert understands that everyone else on set could not possibly be tuned in to every action or condition that could adversely affect the animal.
So, they will have a safety meeting ahead of time to explain what needs to happen for the animal to be properly cared for---because even something as innocuous as having food in your pocket could prove a problem for an animal with an intense sense of smell.
In many cases, these safety meetings can preemptively prevent issues that might negatively impact the animal and your production.
But should the animal safety expert give suggestions as the shoot progresses, the producer, production supervisor, or whoever else is working with them must immediately rectify the situation – no waiting until lunch or a break – to ensure that animal’s safety and production compliance.
As of this writing, towards the end of 2021, we are unfortunately still dealing with Covid-19 and its impact on production.
The Animal Protection Agency follows the guidelines of multiple agencies such as the AICP, AMPTP, and CDC to ensure that each of its animal safety consultants are in compliance with all efforts to uphold on-set safety standards, such as social distancing, contact surface disinfecting, and other key practices known to prevent the spread of Covid.
Since the outset of the pandemic to the present day, both the Animal Protection Agency and the AHA have implemented Covid safety measures.
The AHA, too, has guidelines listed on their website.
Non-compliance can come in many forms.
It might be ignoring those on-set suggestions of the animal safety consultant, or forgetting that a consultant is needed until half of the animal’s scenes are already shot. Or, it could even be intentionally deciding not to use the services of an animal safety consultant at all.
So what happens when any of those scenarios occur?
Bouman states that instances of the production crew pushing back on a consultant’s recommendations are exceedingly rare. That being said, if it happened, the consultant would pull the animal from the set should they feel that it was in danger.
If the production is a SAG signatory, Wrapbook’s Head of Labor, Paul Schoeman, notes it would violate its contract to ignore the consultant’s recommendations. Both Schoeman and Bouman add that the project would furthermore not have approval for the end credit animal safety disclaimer.
Regarding that disclaimer, keep in mind that every organization that oversees animal safety on set has its own disclaimer language. The “no animals were harmed” phrase is used by the AHA.
But should a production use the Animal Protection Agency for its animal handling supervision, and it qualifies for the disclaimer, what its producers will receive is permission to include “Protecting Animals in Production - Ensuring Safety” as part of the end credits.
Also, don’t forget that there’s the reputation of those on set. Foregoing the insurance of the animal’s safety isn’t a good look. Who wants to be known for not caring about an animal’s safety?
....Like temporarily forgetting about having an animal safety consultant on set? After all, these are much more common.
Bouman is sympathetic to the plight of those who might realize two weeks into a shoot that the animal safety expert is missing. She further emphasizes that late is better than never, as even partial supervision of animal safety on a production is important for the simple fact of making sure the animal is being properly cared for.
But the bottom line is that because an animal safety consultant wasn’t present for the entire time that the animal was on set, official approval cannot be given. It may be non-compliance for an innocent mistake, but it all comes back to protecting the integrity of the APA and the approvals it does give.
Bouman does stress that even if the production has already started, it’s so important for that company to contact an animal safety organization. No matter who you choose or when you realize you need to choose one, the goal is the same ---to keep the animals safe.
We’ve come a long way from animals as props. But even productions with the very best intentions for their furry, feathered, or scaly actors do not always have the knowledge or experience to recognize all that is needed to ensure their safety. And we can all agree that safety of animals on set should be treated no differently than that for a human actor or any of the crew members.
Organizations like the Animal Protection Agency and the work of Jone Bouman and her colleagues are vital to the world of entertainment.
Because of their devotion to animals, as well as their expertise regarding what is needed to keep all species safe on set, it allows both creatives to make narratives that include happy and healthy animal characters and audiences to enjoy these magnificent creatures.
At Wrapbook, we're all about providing the very best free resources to producers and their crews. However, this post is not a substitute for professional legal advice. Answers do not create a company-client relationship, nor is it a solicitation to offer legal advice. Seek the advice of a licensed attorney in the appropriate jurisdiction before taking any action that may affect your decisions or rights.
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