WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Animal wranglers involved in the making of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" movie trilogy say the production company, owned by Warner Bros. is responsible for the deaths of up to 27 animals, largely because they were kept at a farm filled with bluffs, sinkholes and other "death traps."
Wrangler 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.
He said horses run at speeds of up to 30 mph and need to be housed on flat land: "It's just a no-brainer."
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," Langridge said. "He was in a bad state."
Rainbow, who had been slated for use as a hobbit horse, was euthanized. A week later, a horse named Doofus got caught in some fencing and sliced open its leg. That horse survived, but Langridge said he'd had enough.
He and his wife, Lynn, who was also working as a wrangler, said they quit in February 2011. The following month, they wrote an email to Brigitte Yorke, the Hobbit trilogy's unit production manager, outlining their concerns.
Wrangler Johnny Smythe said that soon after Langridge left, a horse named Claire was found dead, its head submerged in a stream after it fell over a bluff. After that, he said, the horses were put in stables, where a third horse named Zeppelin died.
One wrangler said that over time he buried six goats, six sheep and a dozen chickens. The wranglers say two more horses suffered severe injuries but survived.
A fourth wrangler, who didn't want to be named because she feared it could jeopardize her future employment in the industry, said another horse, Molly, got caught in a fence and ripped her leg open, suffering permanent injuries.
The American Humane Association, which is overseeing animal welfare on the films, says no animals were harmed during the actual filming. But it also says the wranglers' 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 on Monday acknowledged that horses, goats, chickens and one sheep died at the farm near Wellington where about 150 animals were housed for the movies, but he said some of the deaths were from natural causes.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first movie in the planned $500 million trilogy, is scheduled to launch with a red-carpet premiere on Nov. 28 in Wellington and will open at theaters in the U.S. and around the world in December.
Matt Dravitzk, the 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.
He said the company no longer leases the farm and has no animals left on the property.
The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) says it's planning protests at the premieres in New Zealand, the U.S. and the U.K.
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