A tiger nearly drowned, the one in ‘Life of Pi’

An investigative report uncovers some dirty secrets of animal abuse.

By Deepak Chitnis

"Life of Pi"WASHINGTON, DC: A newly released investigative report by The Hollywood Reporter has uncovered animal abuse on the set of last year’s blockbuster Life of Pi, including an incident in which the film’s star tiger nearly drowned.

An email from the American Humane Association’s (AHA) Gina Johnson – who worked as the organization’s appointed monitor for the duration of the filming of Life of Pi – has surfaced, in which she tells a colleague that an incident on the set nearly caused a tiger named King to drown when he couldn’t swim to the side of the large water tank in which filming was taking place.

“Last week we almost f***ing killed King in the water tank,” says Johnson in a 2011 email that was obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. “The one take with him just went really badly and he got lost trying to swim to the side. Damn near drowned.”

Johnson goes on to tell the recipient of the email “I think this goes without saying but DON’T MENTION IT TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY THE OFFICE! I have downplayed the f*** out of it.”

The AHA has a long history of monitoring Hollywood films and TV shows to ensure that animals are treated fairly and humanely, with their famous disclaimer “No animals were harmed during the making of this film” appearing at the end of nearly every major Hollywood motion picture of the past several decades. But The Hollywood Reporter brings to light a disturbing amount of negligence with regards to animals in films, even ones that carry the disclaimer.

The vast majority of shots involving the Life of Pi tiger, named Richard Parker in the film, were created using Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), since it was both impractical and dangerous to have a real tiger in a boat with lead actor Suraj Sharma during the shoot. But in certain scenes, a real tiger had to be used because the CGI double simply wasn’t good enough, and it was during one of these relatively few scenes that the incident occurred.

Another twist in the story is that Johnson was allegedly involved with one of the executive producers on Life of Pi, implying that she was either paid to keep the incident secret or chose not to disclose it because of her intimate relations with one of the purse-string holders. The AHA apparently did not know about the relationship until after the film had wrapped production.

Allegations have now surfaced that Hollywood and the AHA have an understanding that, at least with big-budget films that have hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, the AHA overlooks certain small incidents in order to not garner any adverse publicity for the film. The AHA denies these charges, saying that the safety and protection of animals are the organization’s first and foremost concern.

Nevertheless, unless new emails surface that detail other mishaps, King the tiger did survive the production and was not grievously harmed by the Life of Pi production crew, with one spokesman for 20th Century Fox (the film’s distributor) calling Johnson’s email an overreaction. Other recent blockbusters, such as the billion dollar-grosser The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, cannot boast a similar claim, as 27 farm animals allegedly died during production due to various causes, including dehydration and even drowning.

Life of Pi, a film that cost $120 million to produce and many millions more to market, received the AHA’s stamp of approval and went on to gross over $600 million at the worldwide box office and rake in four Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Visual Effects (mostly for its realistic depiction of animals via CGI).

To contact the author, email to deepakchitnis@americanbazaaronline.com

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