Veteran Hollywood animal trainer Bill Berloni said the recently leaked footage from “A Dog’s Purpose” was as “gut-wrenching” to him as it was to other animal lovers who witnessed the behind-the-scenes footage of a dog that appeared to be on the verge of drowning.
But animals are mistreated on movie sets more often than the small fraction of incidents that leak to the press indicate, Berloni said, calling the problem a “dirty Hollywood secret.”
“A Dog’s Purpose” is the only the latest Hollywood production to face allegations of animal abuse. In 2012, horse, goat and chicken wranglers working on Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” told the Associated Press that 27 animals had died during the making of the films because of poor conditions at the farm where they were kept.
The American Humane Association gave the trilogy its “no animals were harmed” seal of approval, but the wranglers said that the AHA only monitored the animals while they were on set, not at off-set farms containing sinkholes and other hazards. AHA did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.
Also that year, HBO canceled Dustin Hoffman’s horse racing drama “Luck” after three horses had to be euthanized during production. HBO had been working with AHA to improve conditions for the horses’ safety after the second euthanization, but the network finally pulled the plug after the third incident — and before the complete first season had wrapped.
According to industry veterans, the problem often arises because animal handlers have little or no power on set. In fact, animals fall under the purview of the prop department and are regularly hired through the same process for bringing inanimate objects to the set, said Berloni, whose credits include “Hope Springs,” “Paterson” and the 2014 “Annie” remake.
“On any day, I get a call and they will say, ‘We need four puppies for a shoot,'” he said. “I ask, ‘What do the puppies have to do?’ and they tell me they have to do this and this and this. Then, because there are no unions, laws, or standardization, producers just go with the lowest bid. Either you’re the cheapest or you don’t get the job.”
Once on set, handlers often have little influence on the production — especially since many trainers fear short- or long-term consequences if they call for delays to fix problems or re-shoot scenes.
The handlers for “A Dog’s Purpose,” Birds and Animals Unlimited, did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but released a statement insisting that the German shepherd in the leaked scene, named Hercules, was unharmed. Directly after the much-watched water scene, the organization claimed the dog “shook the water off and wagged his tail.”
Berloni said that there could be real consequences for trainers who blow the whistle on dangerous on-set conditions for animals. “If somebody on that [‘A Dog’s Purpose’] set went to the L.A. Animal Welfare Unit, and [the studio] saw who made the complaint, they’d never work again,” he said.
One problem is that filmmakers often don’t understand how to properly film scenes with animals. Berloni, who had trained the dog Sandy in the original Broadway musical “Annie,” cited his conflicts with director Will Gluck on the set of Sony’s 2014 big-screen remake starring Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx.
“I tried to educate him about what was possible and how dogs worked,” Berloni said. “But once we got into filming, those responsibilities went back into the prop department. So it was very difficult to get the shots that they wanted with that director because he was unfamiliar with working with animals.”
Berloni cited one outdoor scene in which he pressed to have New York City streets fully blocked off to insure the safety of the dog playing Sandy — only to be told that making adjustments would cause costly delays. The crew eventually acquiesced, but Berloni said he would not work with Gluck again.
Reps for Sony and Gluck did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.
PETA, which leaked the “Dog’s Purpose” footage and called for a boycott of the movie, hopes that advancements in CGI may remove live animals from movie and TV sets altogether.
The bear in “The Revenant” and all the animals in Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” were digital creations, though the cost is still too steep for most productions. “A Dog’s Purpose” producer Gavin Polone told the L.A. Times that using CG animals would have quadrupled the film’s budget.
In the meantime, PETA SVP of communications Lisa Lange called on producers to create an environment where animal trainers feel they can safely do their jobs without fear of reprisal.
“Trainers have to be able to say, ‘I’m concerned about this horse being too close to this explosion’ or ‘I don’t think this dog should be going into the water,'” Lange said. “You have to make your sets safe for these types of complaints, and that’s generally not happening.”
Berloni believes there’s a simpler solution: Take animals off the prop list and treat them as actors.
“It’s a lack of respect,” he says. “They need to have the same rehearsal that any other actors have. Other actors don’t get hired because they’re the cheapest. They get hired because they are the most talented. We need to have an industry-wide understanding that animals are not props and that trainers are just as creative as any other department on the set.”