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“No Animals Were Harmed”: Using Live Animals in Canadian Film and TV Productions

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The HBO television series Luck was recently cancelled after three horses died during production.  News reports indicate that the animal deaths were simply bad luck: the producers had engaged the American Humane Association (the organization which authorizes the use of the reknowned “No Animals Were Harmed” certification mark), which oversees the use of animals in US movie productions, and had evidently been following the AHA’s guidelines.  A short history and evolution of the AHA’s guidelines can be found here, and the AHA also provides access to the full Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media.  As Annie Berlin, writing at the Biederman Blog, notes, the Screen Actors’ Guild (SAG) requires that any motion picture which engages SAG actors also must engage the AHA.

In Canada, the legal implications and requirements surrounding the use of animals in filmed projects is multi-layered.  At the federal level, we can start with the basic criminal law prohibition of cruelty to animals, found in Sections 444-447 of the Criminal Code.  The Health of Animals Act, and its Regulations (in particular Part XII, which speaks to the transportation of animals), provides additional elements of the basic legal framework.  After that, the issue of animal treatment tends to be addressed by a welter of provincial- and municipal-level laws and voluntary guidelines.  (I should note that any Canadian production which engages SAG talent would be obliged, by virtue of the having to sign SAG’s Global Rule One paperwork, to observe the SAG-imposed requirement that the AHA be engaged and their guidelines observed.)  For those wishing to film wildlife on federal land, there may also be Parks Canada guidelines which apply, such as the Mountain National Parks Film and Photography Guidelines.

Provinces in Canada generally have their own legislation addressing prevention of cruelty to animals, usually with attendant regulations setting out the details of animal treatment.  In Ontario, for example, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and its Regulations govern the matter.   Also in Ontario, the Ministry of Labour has issued Guideline No. 40: Animal Handling | Safety Guidelines for the Film and Television Industry in Ontario, which sets out detailed instructions for using animals on set, including number of trainers required to be present, the use of sedation, responsibility and chain of command for the animals, the availability of nets and other safety equipment, etc.  The Guidelines note that the AHA Guidelines are not in force in Canada but, in the absence of equivalent Canadian guidelines, are “generally accepted and observed by” the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  While the OSPCA does not appear to have any specific guidelines regarding the use of animals in filmed entertainment, the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies has issued a position statement which states that the CFHA “opposes the use of animals in all forms of entertainment or displays which may cause them to suffer”, though the statement does not specifically address filmed entertainment, and seems generally aimed more at events such as circuses and rodeos.

In British Columbia, after an on-set incident in 2007 in which a number of dogs died due to an infection, the British Columbia Film Commission has issued its Animals in Film Guidelines,which are a particularly useful source of information since they provide additional legal background on the various federal, provincial and municipal laws and regulations which govern producers working with animals in BC.

Moving down to the municipal level, using the City of Toronto as an example, while the City has Chapter 349 of its Municipal Code, which deals with the treatment of animals within city limits, 349-3(F) exempts from its application “areas of the City in which professionally produced films are being made by film professionals and film production companies, and only temporarily during filming”.  Thus, at least in the City of Toronto, producers must look to provincial and federal law, and the contractual obligations they have agreed to by signing guild or union agreements, in order to guide their conduct.  The municipal code in each relevant municipality where filming with animals is occurring should be checked to discern whether there are any applicable provisions (or whether an exemption is available).

Finally, the ACTRA Independent Production Agreement stipulates that performers must be informed in advance of the presence of any animals on set (Article A2006) and that “No Performer shall be required to work with dangerous animals without a qualified handler or trainer being present on the set” (Article A2608(h)).

Canadian producers who wish to make use of animals in their film and TV projects thus have a variety of different legal obligations with which they must contend, ranging from contractual to regulatory to criminal.  Because the precise legal obligations are determined so much by the locale in which they are taking place, sufficient lead-time should be allowed for in order to enable producer’s counsel to properly review and assess which legal requirements must be observed.