Animal handlers involved in the making of The Hobbit film 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.
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.
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," he said. "He was in a bad state."
Rainbow was put down. A week later, a horse named Doofus got caught in some fencing and sliced open its leg. That horse survived, but Mr Langridge said he had had enough. He and his wife, Lynn, who worked with him, said they quit in February 2011. The following month, they wrote to the Hobbit trilogy's unit production manager, outlining their concerns.
The spokesman for Mr 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.