What Does "No Animals Were Harmed" Mean?

It doesn't literally mean that no animals were harmed.

Robert Pattinson with Tai the elephant at the 'Water For Elephants'
Vera Anderson/WireImage/Getty Images

Seeing the certification, "No Animals Were Harmed"® at the end of the credits in a movie or TV show sounds like a guarantee that none of the animal actors used in the film were harmed in any way. That's why people are surprised to learn that it doesn't literally mean that no animals were harmed.

American Humane Association

In the United States, animal actors for television and film are overseen by the American Humane Association.

AHA explains:

American Humane Association's Los Angeles-based Film & TV Unit is the industry's only officially-sanctioned animal monitoring program. We have been supervising films since 1940, and our established filmmaking guidelines, detailed production reviews and certified safety reps keep the cameras rolling and the animals safe.

AHA's monitoring role began when filmmakers forced a horse off the edge of a 70-foot cliff in the 1939 film "Jesse James," starring Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda. The stuntman walked away but the horse died, resulting in public outrage. As a result, the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (now known as the Motion Picture Association of America) gave AHA the authority to monitor all animal action on movie sets. Today, that authority extends to all Screen Actors Guild productions, including movies, TV shows, commercials, music videos, and short films.

American Humane Association Guidelines

The AHA exclusively determines guidelines for the treatment of animals in film and television, and AHA's Certified Animal Safety Representatives™ are on the set to monitor the animals. The guidelines require adequate shelter, food, water and veterinary care, and prohibit sick animals from working.

"No Animals Were Harmed"®

The certification "No Animals Were Harmed"® does not literally mean that no animals were harmed. A movie, television show, commercial, music video or short film earns the "No Animals Were Harmed"® certification if the production meets or exceeds AHA's guidelines for the care and handling of the animals. Most people are surprised to learn that if an animal is injured or killed while AHA guidelines were being followed, the film will still earn the certification.

AHA Ratings System

In addition to the "No Animals Were Harmed"® certification, the American Humane Association has a ratings system:

  • Monitored Outstanding Safety Representatives were on set to ensure the safety of the animals throughout production. After screening the finished product and cross-checking all animal action, we determined the film met or exceeded our PA-FILM-guidelines and is awarded the end credit disclaimer “No Animals Were Harmed”®.
  • Monitored Acceptable Safety Representatives were no (sic) able to monitor every scene in which animals appeared. However, American Humane Association oversaw significant animal action filmed in compliance with our PA-FILM-guidelines. After screening the finished product and cross-checking all animal action supervised during production, we acknowledge that the filmmakers have cooperated fully with our process.
  • Monitored: Special Circumstances Production followed American Humane Association’s PA-FILM-guidelines and cooperated with the protective measures enforced by our Certified Animal Safety Representatives™ , an accident, injury or death involving an animal occurred during the course of filming. A full investigation revealed that the incident was not a result of negligence or malice on the part of the production or animal suppliers.
  • Monitored: Unacceptable Production failed to adhere to our Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media or disregarded animal safety leading to improper animal safety and directly caused the injury or death of an animal.
  • Not Monitored: Production Compliant Safety Representatives were unable to directly supervise the animal action due to limited resources and/or scheduling conflicts. The production complied with all registration requirements, however, submitting a shooting script and relevant animal scheduling information, and provided a pre-release screening of the film as requested by American Humane Association.
  • Not Monitored The production did not seek monitoring oversight from American Humane Association’s Safety Representatives during filming. We cannot attest to the treatment of the animal actors or know whether our Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media were followed.

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Animal Actors and Animal Rights

According to the animal rights viewpoint, the use of animals as actors is at least problematic and in many cases, violates the animal's right to be free. Keeping and training animals for acting roles is problematic because the animal's needs may sometimes come second to the handler's profits. The animals maybe subject to long hours, confinement, negative reinforcement, and other abuses.

If the animal is bred or bought, there is the problem of increasing the number homeless animals. If the animal is typically a wild or exotic animal, such as a dolphin, lion or elephant, the animal suffers in captivity.

There may be some circumstances under which animal rights activists would not object to animal actors if the animal is a rescued animal who cannot live in the wild, and is never subjected to negative reinforcement or other abuses.

Controversy

Some animal advocates object to the certification "No Animals Were Harmed"® being awarded even if an animal was harmed, as long as the AHA guidelines were followed. Tai, the elephant used in the film "Water for Elephants," was beaten and schocked with electric prods by his trainers six years before the film was made. Because the beatings and schocks took place years earlier during the training process, and not on the set, the film earned AHA's "No Animals Were Harmed"® certification.

During the making of the film "Flicka," an extra reported the deaths of two horses. After going public, Roland Windsor Vincent was fired by Fox Productions. In one case, a horse broke his leg and was euthanized. In a separate scene, a recreation of a rodeo event, a horse "tripped on its own rope, and fell down and another horse kicked him in the head, and that horse was in a spasm and died a horrible death." Other extras and bystanders also reported that the horses were punched to make them "perform." To animal advocates, it's not surprising that the deaths occurred during the filming of a movie about rodeos, but AHA called the deaths "accidental" and gave the film their "No Animals Were Harmed"® certification.

AHA has also been accused of having a conflict of interest because they are funded by the very industry they are paid to monitor.

Other Oversight

Animal exhibitors, including businesses that provide trained animals for film and television, are governed by the Animal Welfare Act and subject to inspections by the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

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