Gavin Polone is a big name in Hollywood, even if he’s not known to the average film-goer and television watcher. He’s an Emmy-nominated film and television producer behind such hits as “Panic Room,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Zombieland,” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” But those of us who fight for animals know him as a dedicated, principled advocate for our cause: he’s been a long-time supporter of The HSUS and the Humane Society Legislative Fund and last year, with The HSUS invoking his entertainment industry credentials, he joined us in calling on the California legislature to ban bullhooks used on elephants in circuses (enacted last year). Gavin shares his home with a dog and two cats, is a long-standing vegan, and in a recent article addressing claims concerning his latest movie, “A Dog’s Purpose,” he wrote that the “most consistent and closest relationships I’ve had throughout my life have been with animals.” I recently interviewed Gavin about the controversy over the treatment of a dog on the set of his new movie, the role of the American Humane Association in overseeing animal treatment in the industry, and the future of film and animals.
Gavin, there has been controversy over the treatment of a dog in “A Dog’s Purpose”, a film that everyone agrees delivers a strong message about the human-animal bond and the protection of animals. As the producer of this film, and as a devoted animal advocate, you’ve said you’d never tolerate the mistreatment of any animal. What happened on the set, and is there reason for animal advocates and animal lovers to be concerned?
First, thank you so much for giving me an opportunity to explain. In short, on the day in question, people did not do their jobs. The person directing the action changed the starting point of the scene from where the dog happily and successfully had done it many times before, and this change spooked him. Twenty minutes ago, my dog Lacy was shivering with fear because a technician was in my house fixing the alarm system. I am not sure why but his presence affected her and when he left, she was fine. That dog in the movie, Hercules, had a reaction to the change in position. The director should have cut immediately and moved back to the original start point for the scene as soon as Hercules showed fear; the trainer should have stopped trying to get Hercules into the water immediately; the American Humane Association monitor should have demanded it stop immediately. Nobody who could have stopped that incident from carrying on did so soon enough and it went on for 40 seconds, which is 39 seconds too long. Also, the turbulence in the pool should have been turned down, so that Hercules’s head would not have been submerged for four seconds.
Hercules was not harmed, and is a healthy and happy dog, and no animal was hurt on the movie, but systems broke down and what was seen on the edited and intentionally inflammatory video should not have happened. If your readers would like more detail on this, they can read the column I wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, which, at this point, has been read by several million people.
What is your opinion on the use of wild animals and domesticated animals on movie sets?
Wild animals should never be used on sets. I’ve done a movie in Africa where we created a complete 3-D digital crocodile and then shot footage of some animals in the wild and composited them into the scenes, but never brought in a trained wild animal. Domesticated animals, like dogs or cats, have evolved to be around people and can be used on a set without putting them in unnatural situations or using abusive training techniques. But I do not believe that is true with wild animals, like tigers or orcas, and I would never participate in their use on a set. In an early draft of “A Dog’s Purpose”, there was a scene with a bear. I demanded that it be removed, because I knew we would not have the budget to build a digital bear and I would not allow a trained real bear on the set.
You’ve been highly critical of the American Humane Association (an organization that The HSUS calved off from in 1954 and has no affiliation with). The group has had a contract with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) for decades to monitor the treatment of animals on movie sets and it provides a “No Animals Were Harmed” assurance for movie-goers. But for years, and especially in recent years, it’s been widely criticized by animal welfare groups for a less than rigorous enforcement program. What’s your take on the group?
The stories of animals being hurt or killed on sets, where AHA had been present in a capacity to monitor the treatment of those animals, are too many to ignore. It is clear to me that they don’t step in to protect animals when needed and after an animal is hurt, such as on the TV show “Luck” or in the film “The Hobbit”, they are pretty much silent about what happened. It is heartbreaking and unacceptable to me that AHA remains the de facto protector of animals in the entertainment industry.
Increasingly, it seems that AHA is generating revenue by allowing its brand to be used by factory farmers, animal trainers, captive display businesses, and others, often undercutting more substantial and meaningful animal welfare standards. People are confused, and wondering if they are a force for good or bad.
I’d go a step further and say that AHA gains unworthy credibility because people who don’t know better think they are part of The Humane Society of the United States. For me, it is as if a trade group for the tobacco industry was called The U.S. Lung Association.
Last year, AHA reached a new low in my view when it hired Jack Hubbard from the public relations shop of Richard Berman, who fights animal protection efforts across the board on behalf of unknown clients involved with animal exploitation. Hubbard is now AHA’s chief marketing officer and vice president of communications. It feels to me like the group has flipped and may no longer be an ally of animal welfare but an adversary instead.
“It feels like”? I think you’re being charitable. Their actions and inactions speak for themselves. To me, their billing themselves as protectors of animals is a fraud.
The AHA attempted to undercut the effects of Prop 2 in California in 2008, and similar initiatives in Oregon and Washington, by pushing its comparatively weak American Humane Certified standards concerning the treatment of farm animals. In recent years, it’s joined with elephant trainers and circus spokespersons to defend the use of the bullhook for controlling animals. And it’s launched a certification scheme for zoos and aquaria, recently giving its endorsement to a “swim with the dolphins” chain that traffics in close contact experiences that carry serious health and safety risks for both humans and animals, and keeps the animals in small pens and tanks. Do you think it’s time for the movie industry to shed AHA for its certification program? Would you support a governmental role for oversight in this area instead?
Absolutely, and I intend to be a part of the industry moving away from AHA and to a new organization that is independent of those whom it regulates and is answerable to either the state or federal government. Because of the negative publicity surrounding the incident on “A Dog’s Purpose”, and the possible revenue lost, I think that the film studios now realize that it is financially advantageous for them to have a better system for protecting animals rather than just posting a straw man on the set, hoping to avoid the consequences when something bad happens.