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A Dog's Purpose

Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures

A Dog's Purpose wasn't meant to be a controversial movie.

If anything, the family-friendly film (based on W. Bruce Cameron's book of the same name) seemed likely to have audiences crying in a Marley & Me kind of way. We could barely make it through the commercials in one piece.

But when TMZ released video footage earlier this month that purported to show what looked like a fearful dog being forced into the water by a trainer, more than just devoted animal rights activists were immediately concerned. If you're looking for consensus on an issue, it's that abuse of an animal in any form is unacceptable.

The film's press junket and red carpet premiere were hastily canceled amid the controversy as people started to question just what goes into making a movie in which animals take center stage.

So those involved in the making of A Dog's Purpose immediately set out to quell potential moviegoers' concerns.

Amblin Entertainment, Birds & Animals Unlimited (the company that provided the dog trainer on set and the American Humane Association (which sends on-set animal welfare monitors) each launched an independent investigation into the stunt in question prior to the movie's release. Ultimately, they reached the same conclusion as A Dog's Purpose star Dennis Quaid, who told Today, "Absolutely no dogs were harmed in this." Rather, the footage that went viral had been "spliced, edited and manipulated that to make it look as if a dog was being abused."

And audiences took their word for it. A Dog's Purpose opened at No. 2 at the box office this past weekend with an $18.4 million haul in wide release, a strong figure since the film's reported budget was about $22 million.

A Dog's Purpose

Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures

Mark Stubis, a spokesman for the AHA, told E! News in an email that the video "was misleading and edited" and that "evidence supports the finding that the two scenes shown in the edited video were filmed at different times."

He reiterated that the "full spectrum of safety measures were in place" during shooting."Production was stopped after the dog showed signs of stress," he explained. "The dog was not forced to swim in the water during this take." Stubis added that the full report from "a third-party investigation by a respected independent animal cruelty expert" commissioned by the AHA would be completed by the end of last week. (As of press time, the AHA has yet to release the full findings of this investigation to the public.) 

But the very possibility that dogs could be treated cruelly in other scenarios ignited a much larger conversation about the use of animals in film and television.

As Bob Ferber, a former prosecutor and founder of L.A.'s Animal Protection Unit, put it to E! News, the video from A Dog's Purpose might be "a relatively minor thing...but it does illustrate that this is the standard in the industry."

"What should've happened [in this instance] was the handler should have said, 'We need to take 10 minutes...Take a break,' or, 'We'll shoot this tomorrow,' or, 'Let's try something else,'" said Ferber, who retired from public service in 2013 but continues to work independently as an animal welfare attorney. According to Ferber, though, filmmakers are often reluctant to take unscheduled breaks because of the high cost it can have on production. 

"I've been a consultant for some TV shows...and I saw that, you know, when an actor is sneezing or something breaks, it's a huge deal," he said. "The dollar signs are going—it costs money to take a break...a 10-minute break that wasn't scheduled, that means it might be 10 minutes into overtime which can cost tens of thousands of dollars...and so it's like, 'We're not gonna take a break for an animal. You get that animal to do it, or we'll get another animal from somewhere else.'"

A Dog's Purpose

Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which had called for a boycott of A Dog's Purpose, regularly takes issue with live animals being part of a film or TV production for the very reason Ferber mentioned.

PETA Vice President Lisa Lange tells E! News, "...The [entertainment] industry, from beginning to end, is an industry that's based on money and animals having to perform on cue, [and] because time is money on the set of a film, we are opposed to using them."

Both Ferber and Lange were critical of the AHA, the self-proclaimed "industry watchdog." The nonprofit organization monitors the treatment of animal actors during filming and are the only ones who can award productions the "No Animals Were Harmed" end-credit certification. The AHA also receives funding from the Screen Actors Guild-Producers Industry Advancement & Cooperative Fund, and critics argue that these financial ties jeopardize AHA's objectivity.

In 2013, The Hollywood Reporter reported on alleged "improper cosiness between the AHA and the entertainment business." Ferber, who was featured in the profile, told E! News that as he sees it, "AHA's survival  depends on this [industry relationship]."

The AHA maintains, however, that this is not the case. Stubis, the organization's spokesman, told E! News that the AHA's "No Animals Were Harmed" program "is based on the comprehensive Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media, [which are] rigorous, species-specific protocols that are defined, reviewed, and regularly updated by a Scientific Advisory Committee of leading, independent animal scientists, animal behaviorists, veterinarians, and animal ethicists."

He also noted the program is led by "a renowned veterinarian with more than 20 years' experience, and many of our trained Certified Animal Safety Representatives are also veterinarians (Doctors of Veterinary Medicine)."

The AHA guidelines are extensive and explicitly state that, "No animal will be killed or injured for the sake of a film production," and, "American Humane Association will not allow any animal to be treated inhumanely to elicit a performance." No drugs or sedatives may be administered to an animal for the purpose of filmmaking. If a production buys or leases live animals for a scene (hamsters, goldfish, etc.), the AHA requires proof that they were all returned or adopted to suitable homes in good health and condition. Qualified trainers must use "only positive reinforcement techniques to train and manage animals in filmed entertainment."

There's an entire chapter on water safety, with specific requirements outlined regarding cleanliness, temperature, flow rates and rescue plans. 

A Dog's Purpose

Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures

But according to Ferber, there's not enough accountability when it comes to enforcing to these guidelines. "[That's why] we need an independent, independently funded organization," he said. "Honestly, I'm not sure how it should happen, but I think there's a model at least to look at which is how children are cared for on the set...[We have] laws where there are true, independent monitors that are with the children all the time, that not only protect their health—their physical health, their emotional health—they make sure they get their education while the movie or TV show is being filmed."

Lange also takes issue with the current system of monitoring animal actors only during filming. "...for a long time we've been telling the AHA that they can't give acceptable ratings to movies unless they witness the training and unless they witness the living conditions," she told E! News, "and they monitor neither of those things."

 

The PETA VP said she thinks the AHA needs "a complete overhaul" and "new leadership" in order to be effective. And while Lange said she thinks the use of CGI animals only "should be what we strive for, most definitely," there are more ways to ensure the well-being of the real animals being used onscreen. 

"...If  you had an agency that wanted to do right by animals, they would never give an acceptable rating to a movie that uses wild animals. So no chimpanzees, elephants, tigers—because the training is always violent for those animals," Lange claims, "and they would monitor the training sessions and the living conditions of domestic animals, too."

At the end of the day, eliminating cruelty to animals—in any and all forms—is the common denominator.

The fact that there's this much discussion over what ultimately is proving to have been a non-incident on the set of A Dog's Purpose proves that transparency is going to be increasingly important moving forward. Having the right rules in place is the first step—and making sure they're followed, no excuses, is the goal.

(E! News and Universal Pictures are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)