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A Dog’s Purpose's animal abuse allegations, explained

A Dog’s Purpose is about canine love. A disturbing video raises questions about how it was filmed. 

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

A Dog’s Purpose, the upcoming film from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment about how dogs don’t really die but instead are reincarnated over and over as other dogs to teach humans about love, was never going to be more than a slightly manipulative, feel-good movie targeted at anyone who has a soft-spot for puppies. It’s safe to say its audience might include almost everyone, but especially animal lovers.

The recent news surrounding the movie might change that.

On January 18, TMZ published footage of what could possibly be animal cruelty involving one of the dogs on set. The video appears to be authentic, as the American Humane Association has responded by suspending its field representative who was supposed to be supervising the film’s treatment of its animal performers, and the film’s director has publicly rebuked the alleged abuse taking place. PETA has called for a boycott. The companies involved in producing and distributing the film are now investigating the incident as well. And the movie’s premiere has been canceled.

Here’s what we know so far:

The alleged abuse revolves around a German shepherd seemingly forced into rough waters

The center of this controversy is an exclusive video released by TMZ. In it, you can see a trainer trying to force a distressed German shepherd into a pool of rough water, as the dog tries to wriggle out of the trainer’s grasp. At one point, the dog is hanging on to the edge of the pool. Toward the end of the video, it appears to go underwater and it looks like people on the set panic a bit. All throughout, there’s running commentary from an unidentified person who’s watching the incident from offscreen, giving a play-by-play about how the dog wants to get away and will just have to be thrown in.

It’s hard to watch, as you can visibly see the dog in distress. The German shepherd clearly does not want to be in the water, and is not in a playful mood.

But what must also be made clear is that the video is edited.

"While we continue to review the circumstances shown in the edited footage, Amblin is confident that great care and concern was shown for the German Shepherd Hercules, as well as for all of the other dogs featured throughout the production of the film,” the company said in an official statement obtained by CNN.

According to Amblin Entertainment via a statement provided to CNN, the dog didn’t have to complete the scene after being forced in — where the first part of the video cuts off. TMZ says the company claims that the filming resumed when the dog was comfortable and it was not thrown into the water. “Hercules [the dog] ended up going under once filming resumed, but divers and handlers quickly rescued him,” the statement said.

About 10 seconds before the video ends, there’s a jump cut between the dog being distressed and the dog being in the water and going under. Since the video cuts where it does, it creates a narrative that the dog was distressed and thrown into the pool. But the video doesn’t actually confirm that. The dog could have, as the production company states, entered the water in a calmer state and then gone underwater. Though it’s clear the dog was distressed for at least some time, as seen in the video, we currently have no way of knowing how it actually ended up in the water.

The Animal Humane Association has reportedly suspended its on-set representative — but can it be trusted?

The American Humane Association is an organization whose mission is to ensure “the safety, welfare and well-being of animals.” It created the “No Animals Were Harmed” program — familiar to anyone who’s seen the “No animals were harmed in the making of this film” disclaimer in a movie’s end credits — to oversee the treatment of animal performers in the film and TV industries. It is a completely different organization than the Humane Society, another well-known animal welfare organization.

The American Humane Association has strict guidelines regarding how animal performers should be treated on sets, as well as specific rules regarding how studios should treat animals when it comes to water stunts.

According to organization’s 2016 “Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media,” swimming scenes must be reviewed in a safety meeting prior to the scene, and someone from American Humane must be invited. The guide also adds:

Before any animal is placed in or around water, whether for swimming or water-crossing scenes, prior approval must be received from American Humane Association. Safety measures shall be reviewed with American Humane Association and demonstrated at American Humane Association’s request.

The organization also puts restrictions on special effects that simulate rain and the velocity of wind, which dovetail into this specific scene — the German shepherd is part of a river rescue scene from the movie.

But perhaps the most important tenet in the guide regarding water stunts is that the American Humane Association says that a field representative “shall closely monitor all strenuous or potentially risky animal action for: any signs of stress and/or tiring of the animals.”

Clearly the animal on the set of A Dog’s Purpose was stressed, but if we’re going by the production company’s word, the scene was stopped. What’s disconcerting, however, is that when filming resumed and the dog was allegedly comfortable in the water, it quickly went under — a sign that the stunt, which was being monitored by the American Humane Association, was perhaps too extreme.

According to the AP, the field representative has since been suspended while an investigation is conducted.

I mentioned earlier that the video is edited, and that’s important too. We don’t see how long the dog is submerged, as the video stops abruptly when everyone rushes into the help. It’s a dramatic ending, and it seems like a really scary moment. But — and I’m not saying this is necessarily the case — we also have to be just as open to the idea that the proper precautions were taken, that protocol was followed and the dog went under anyway, and the stunt was reconsidered.

The incident also puts renewed attention on already-existing questions of the American Humane Association’s effectiveness and whether its standards are sufficient. In 2013, the Hollywood Reporter published a chilling report about how the organization actually gave its “no animals were harmed” certification to films and television shows where animals were in fact harmed. A few examples of abuse from the report: a tiger almost drowned on the set of The Life of Pi and a husky was punched on the set of Eight Below, a feel-good dog movie similar to A Dog’s Purpose.

The incident isn’t just about whether or not what we see in this video constitutes animal cruelty or abuse, but whether our safeguards and the people meant to protect animal performers are capable of doing so.

The uproar over the video is being fueled by how the video is the antithesis to the movie

A major reason this TMZ report has become so incendiary is that it runs completely against the grain of a movie. A Dog’s Purpose — which is based on a novel of the same name — is supposed to be about how selfless dogs are, and how all they want to do is give their owners love. That the movie now has animal abuse allegations attached to it obviously runs counter to that premise.

Lasse Hallstrom, the film’s director, responded to the video by stating that he didn’t see the scene in question and that a thorough investigation is underway:

Likewise, Amblin and Universal confirmed that they would be looking into the incident.

But there are also elements of this story that are a bit too convenient. The way the video is edited and the fact that it was released shortly before the movie hits theaters (it’s scheduled to come out on Friday, January 27), seem designed to maximize the number of people interested in the controversy. If this filming happened months ago — TMZ reported that it was November 2015 — why aren’t we seeing it until now?

The narrative that there is animal abuse on set of a movie about loving animals seems a bit too convenient by half. But then again, as the Hollywood Reporter pointed out in its aforementioned 2013 report, the American Humane Association and the movie industry have downplayed horrific animal abuse and cruelty to the point we never hear about it.

There’s a chance that Hercules, the German shepherd in the video, could have been traumatized. There’s an equal chance that the editing in this video has created a narrative that’s far worse than what actually happened. The promised investigations into the claims are important, and will hopefully inform what our hearts feel and eyes see from what actually happened on set.

As it stands, if there’s anything this controversy proves, it’s that humans truly care about dogs. There’s a fierce loyalty to want to protect them from harm, and fidelity to their well-being. And we didn’t need a movie to make this point for us.