UPDATE: An investigation by American Humane, which oversees animal safety in Hollywood, has determined that the leaked video "mischaracterized" production, and that “no animals were harmed in those scenes and numerous preventative safety measures were in place.” [The original story follows]
If the legacies of poor slain animals Cecil the lion and Harambe the gorilla have demonstrated anything, it's that people feel very, very strongly about animals being injured or killed, and this has long been an issue in Hollywood. The film industry has come a long way since dozens of horses were killed in the making of 1959's Ben-Hur, but periodically a fresh scandal crops up as a reminder that not all is well when it comes to Hollywood's animal performers.
The latest production to be hit with such a scandal is A Dog's Purpose, a light-hearted family fantasy film based on the book of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron, which chronicles the life as a dog as it goes through several reincarnations and lives with various human owners. The film was directed by Lasse Hallström (Dear John) and features the voice of Josh Gad (Frozen) as the dog.
Earlier today, TMZ unveiled disturbing footage secretly filmed on the set of A Dog's Purpose in Winnipeg, Canada in November 2015. The video shows a trainer attempting to push a frightened German Shepherd into a pool of churning water, for a scene in which the dog rescues a child from drowning in a river. In the next piece of footage, the dog can be seen forced up against the edge of the pool by the flow of water as the trainers call out to it. The dog is then submerged completely and the scene appears to become panicked, with the trainers swimming over to the dog and a crew member yelling, "Cut it! Cut it! Cut it!"
"Sources connected to production tell us 8 outboard motors were used to churn the water and recreate a rushing river. The dog eventually got in the water - or was forced in - but was quickly submerged... We're told director Lasse Hallström was present the whole time, and at least one member of the crew was extremely disturbed by the dog's treatment during this scene."
Amblin Partners and Universal Pictures responded to the release of the footage with the following statement:
"Fostering a safe environment and ensuring the ethical treatment of our animal actors was of the utmost importance to those involved in making this film and we will look into the circumstances surrounding this video."
Meanwhile, TMZ also reports that the American Humane Association - the organization responsible for the No Animals Were Harmed program - was on set and was therefore responsible for ensuring that animal performers were handled safely and humanely. In response to the video, the AHA has suspended the representative who was present on the set of A Dog's Purpose that day, and released the following statement:
"We are placing the safety representative who was on the set on administrative leave immediately and are bringing in an independent third party to conduct an investigation into this matter."
The studio will no doubt attempt damage control, but it's unlikely that the movie will recover from this PR disaster, especially so close to its release on January 27th. If nothing else, at least this may serve as a cautionary tale for Hollywood when it comes to the treatment of animal performers.
We'll keep you updated on this story as more information becomes available.