Animal handlers involved in the making of The Hobbit film trilogy have said the production company is responsible for the deaths of up to 27 animals, largely because they were kept on a farm filled with bluffs, sinkholes and other "death traps".
The American Humane Association, which is overseeing animal welfare on the films, said no animals were harmed during the actual filming. But it also said the handlers' 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 said that the deaths of two horses were avoidable, but added that the production company moved quickly to improve conditions after they died. The spokesman said other deaths were from natural causes.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first movie in a planned trilogy, is scheduled to launch with a red-carpet premiere on November 28 in Wellington and will open at cinemas around the world in December. The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says it is planning protests at the premieres in New Zealand, the US and Britain.
Handlers 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 said that over time he buried three horses, as well as about six goats, six sheep and a dozen chickens. Two more horses suffered severe injuries but survived.
A 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.