Animal wranglers involved in the making of "The Hobbit" movie trilogy say the production company is responsible for the deaths of up to 27 animals, largely because they were kept at a farm filled with bluffs, sinkholes and other "death traps."
The American Humane Association, which is overseeing animal welfare on the films, says no animals were harmed during the actual filming. But it also says the wranglers' complaints highlight shortcomings in its oversight system, which monitors film sets but not the facilities where the animals are housed and trained.
A spokesman for trilogy director Peter Jackson on Monday acknowledged that horses, goats, chickens and one sheep died at the farm near Wellington where about 150 animals were housed for the movies, but he said some of the deaths were from natural causes.
The spokesman, Matt Dravitzki, agreed that the deaths of two horses were avoidable, and said the production company moved quickly to improve conditions after they died.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first movie in the planned $500 million trilogy, is scheduled to launch with a red-carpet premiere Nov. 28 in Wellington and will open at theatres in the U.S. and around the world in December. The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says it's planning protests at the premieres in New Zealand, the U.S. and the U.K.
The Associated Press spoke to four wranglers who said the farm near Wellington was unsuitable for horses because it was peppered with bluffs, sinkholes and broken-down fencing. They said they repeatedly raised concerns about the farm with their superiors and the production company, owned by Warner Bros., but it continued to be used. They say they want their story aired publicly now to prevent similar deaths in the future.
One wrangler said that over time he buried three horses, as well as about six goats, six sheep and a dozen chickens. The wranglers say two more horses suffered severe injuries but survived.
Wrangler Chris Langridge said he was hired as a horse trainer in November 2010, overseeing 50 or so horses, but immediately became concerned that the farm was full of "death traps." He said he tried to fill in some of the sinkholes, made by underground streams, and even brought in his own fences to keep the horses away from the most dangerous areas. Ultimately, he said, it was an impossible task.
He said horses run at speeds of up to 30 mph and need to be housed on flat land: "It's just a no-brainer."
The first horse to die, he said, was a miniature named Rainbow.
"When I arrived at work in the morning, the pony was still alive but his back was broken. He'd come off a bank at speed and crash-landed," Langridge said. "He was in a bad state."
Dravitzki, the spokesman for Peter Jackson, said the production company reacted swiftly after the first two horses died, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading housing and stable facilities in early 2011.
"We do know those deaths were avoidable and we took steps to make sure it didn't happen again," he said.
The American Humane Association said in its report on "An Unexpected Journey" that it investigated the farm at the production company's request. Dravitzki said the company contacted the AHA after Smythe alleged mistreatment of animals.
Mark Stubis, an association spokesman, said it investigated the farm in August 2011, months after the first deaths.
"We made safety recommendations to the animals' living areas. The production company followed our recommendations and upgraded fence and farm housing, among other things," the group said.