Ever since the 1939 film Jesse James caused a public uproar over a scene of blatant animal cruelty, the American Humane Association has overseen most every Hollywood production to verify – in the infamous words contained in the credits of countless movies – “No animals were harmed during the production of this film.” For over seventy years, any film that has failed to gain the AHA’s seal of approval has been met with controversy and notoriety.

However, the Humane Association may have its work cut out for it in the case of one of the biggest upcoming blockbusters of the season. Former employees who worked on The Hobbit Trilogy – films that the AHA had previously given their full approval – have accused the film’s staff of allowing over two-dozen animals to die under their care.

In a report published this morning and carried by numerous news outlets, The Associated Press quotes wranglers who say that 27 of their charges died during production of The Hobbit trilogy. The extensive piece features testimony by four wranglers who assert that the New Zealand farm where animals were housed between production days was a “death trap” filled with dangerous sinkholes, cliffs, and improper accommodations. According to these sources, The Hobbit‘s production company refused to address early concerns of its wranglers, which lead to horses, goats, sheep, and chickens dying while on the farm. Most of these deaths are alleged to be from avoidable accidents and poor dietary care.

Peter Jackson and his production company have issued a statement in response to the AP’s allegations, categorically denying that the animals’ deaths constituted mistreatment. Though the production staff were aware of the deaths, they insist that considerable funds were devoted to improving the animals’ living conditions. Furthermore, the statement emphasizes that the production went out of its way to avoid harming animals during filming, going so far as to never use live animals during action sequences.

The American Humane Association responded to the charges of abuse by noting that it has already given The Hobbit Trilogy its approval. Organization spokespeople acknowledge that there were complaints filed about the farm and that the facilities were investigated by AHA staff. Numerous improvements and upgrades were apparently made to the farm, its buildings, and the surrounding fencing on the AHA’s recommendation. Despite their insistence that the animal deaths do not constitute active harm, representatives of the AHA have voiced concern over whether the incident indicates flaws in the organization’s oversight.

Did the New Zealand landscape contribute to animal deaths?

It will be interesting to see what steps the American Humane Association takes in response to these allegations. With the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey only weeks away, it’s doubtful that the organization will retract its endorsement. Nonetheless, this will no doubt lead to further investigations of the production’s treatment of animals both on and off the set. It may even cause the AHA to revise its policy of off-set attention and perhaps their overall standards of review.

While these allegations do not point to outright malice or cruelty on the part of the production, they may point to a possible atmosphere of negligence. Unfortunately, the purely accidental nature of the animals’ demises makes any solid conclusions difficult – if not impossible. One thing is for sure: if The Hobbit‘s higher-ups did indeed ignore requests for better housing, it will tarnish the reputation of a director known for his considerate, thorough productions.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey arrives in theaters on December 14, 2012.

Source: The Associated Press (via Entertainment Weekly and The Wrap)