Hobbit film-makers in animal welfare row after 27 deaths

Martin Freeman is one of the stars of The Hobbit
Martin Freeman is one of the stars of The Hobbit
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Animal handlers involved in the making of The Hobbit movie trilogy say the production company is responsible for the deaths of up to 27 animals, largely because they were kept at a farm filled with pits, holes and other “death traps”.

The American Humane Association, which is overseeing animal welfare on the films, says no animals were harmed during the actual filming.

But it adds the handlers’ complaints highlight shortcomings in its monitoring system, which oversees film sets but not the facilities where the animals are housed and trained.

A spokesman for director Peter Jackson yesterday acknowledged that horses, goats, chickens and one sheep died at the farm near Wellington where about 150 animals were housed for the films. He said some of the deaths were from natural causes.

The spokesman, Matt Dravitzki, agreed that the deaths of two horses were avoidable, and said the production company moved quickly to improve conditions after they died.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first movie in the planned $500 million trilogy, is scheduled to launch with a red-carpet premiere next week in Wellington and will open at theatres around the world next month.

The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) says it is planning protests at the premieres in the UK, New Zealand and the US.

Four animal handlers said the farm near Wellington was unsuitable for horses because it was peppered with holes and broken-down fencing. They said they repeatedly raised concerns about the farm with their superiors and the production company, owned by Warner Bros, but it continued to be used.

One said that, over time, he buried three horses, as well as about six goats, six sheep and a dozen chickens. The handlers say two more horses suffered severe injuries but survived. Chris Langridge said he was hired as a horse trainer in 
November 2010, overseeing 50 or so horses, but immediately became concerned that the farm was full of “death traps”. He said he tried to fill in some sinkholes, made by underground streams, and even brought in his own fences to keep the horses away from the most dangerous areas. Ultimately, he said, it was an impossible task.

Mr Dravitzki, the spokesman for Mr Jackson, said the production company reacted swiftly after the first two horses died, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading 
facilities in early 2011, even before the representations were made by the American Humane Association.

“We do know those deaths were avoidable and we took steps to make sure it didn’t happen again,” he said.