HBO’s recent decision to pull the plug on its racetrack drama series ‘Luck’ after three horses died during production of the high-profile show spotlights not so much as to what producers did or did not do to protect the animals but how those in filming and production can take steps to safeguard four-legged performers and avoid unfortunate circumstance.

Guidelines established by the American Humane Association offer a sound start.  The association is the only animal welfare organization supported in this role by the Screen Actors Guild, which has a clause in its agreement mandating that in SAG productions, producers must bring the humane group in if animals will be used in filming. The association offers a number of useful links on its site to assist producers in protecting animals on set.  These voluntary guidelines may be seen here, a site with the group’s resources to assist producers in safeguarding animals, including the guidelines that include a handy checklist (see Page Eight). Producers are urged to contact the association if they plan on animals in their productions, as those that meet and follow the group’s guidelines may receive its certification and carry the official disclaimer “No Animals Were Harmed’ in the production credits.

These measures and the association have not immunized themselves from criticism, including from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has raised concerns about the association’s capacity to protect animals because of  its industry ties.  A recent LA Times article discusses how PETA has encouraged studios to halt the use of animals and replace them with CGI or animatronics, though the prices of the moves, the piece notes, may be so steep they’re prohibitive and the technology may not be developed sufficiently to supplant the live performances. In Warhorse, Steven Spielberg used CGI in two scenes, though he also filmed more than 100 horses because he preferred the real deal; he allowed the humane association control over handling of the animals and no horses were harmed on set.

News reports tell of similar cooperation by Luck’s producers with the association and the death of the three horses has been attributed by experts as much to the perils of horse racing, rather than filming.  Dr. Rick Arthur, medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, has been quoted as saying horse fatalities occur more often than many may realize at race tracks. The animals’ injury and mortality risks may have been increased because the horses in Luck were older and retired racers.  Two developed stress fractures in racing scenes and had to be put down; the third died not in filming but after falling after rearing up in its stall.

What happens if producers choose to flout the humane association guidelines and bad things occur with animals on set? The two-legged may be subject to federal regulations and state anti-cruelty laws specific to filming.  California has one of the toughest anti-cruelty laws in the country and its enforcement appears to be rigorous with violators subject to jail and fines up to $20,000.  California Penal Code section 597 states that individuals or those who causes others “to overwork, tortures, torments, deprives of necessary sustenance, drink, or shelter, cruelly beats, mutilates, or cruelly kills any animal is guilty of the offense of animal cruelty.” The law states that “whoever, having the charge or custody of any animal, either as owner or otherwise, subjects any animal to needless suffering, or inflicts unnecessary cruelty upon the animal, or in any manner abuses any animal, or fails to provide the animal with proper food, drink, or shelter or protection from the weather, or who drives, rides, or otherwise uses the animal when unfit for labor,” is guilty of violating this law.

A key mitigator, of course, is showing adherence to and cooperation with the humane association, so those in the industry, govern yourselves accordingly.