Was Harry Potter’s pet owl treated with care on the set? Were real animals kept safe in Avatar? Did they shoot the dogfighting scene in this season’s True Blood without hurting the dogs?
The answer can be found when the credits roll and you read that famous, comforting line, “No animals were harmed.”® (Yes, it’s actually a registered trademark.)
For this we can thank American Humane’s Film & Television Unit, the only animal welfare organization with on-set Jurisdiction to ensure the well-being of animals on the set and the safety of Humans involved in the production. Every year, American Humane oversees animal safety issues on more than 1,000 productions worldwide. In order to do so, it takes a team of experts with extensive, diverse backgrounds, a deep knowledge of production and an abiding love for all species. Extraordinary folks like this month’s profile, Jonne Rodarte.
Jonne is an American Humane Certified Animal Safety Representative and a Humane Officer, one of only 11 full-time animal safety reps in the world – making her one of the rarest species of all.
“It’s an incredible job,” says Jonne. “There’s almost never an opening for someone new in this position, so when the opportunity came up six years ago, I jumped at it. Like me, a number of the safety reps are Humane Officers, which means we’ve studied criminal and animal law and carry badges. It’s been truly life-changing.”
Jonne is an equine specialist, well-versed in equine behavior and part of the small, expert team that develops guidelines for safe use and the welfare of horses in films. “I work across all species,” says Jonne, “but my favorites other than horses are bears, elephants and wolves.” It’s an extremely demanding role. Jonne might get a call at 7 or 8 at night and be told she’ll be leaving for the airport at 5 am the next morning.
“Our job on set is to monitor everything on a 360º basis,” Jonne says with a friendly authority. “Should someone decide out of some sense of ignorance or arrogance that they’re going to go ahead and do something against our better judgement, the first thing we’ll do is probably pull the animal from the scene. Fortunately, that rarely happens.”
Jonne explains, “The trainers I work with love their animals and are committed to them for life, so they appreciate our presence. The trainers have to be extremely focused on the task at hand – we’re a huge help to the production in making sure everything animal-welfare-centric is taken care of. Let’s say it’s a bear. The director might say that what he needs is for that bear to look to the left and up, because he’s spotting a leopard in a tree. Well, the trainer is going to be 100% focused on getting that behavior. My job is to look at everything else. Is there fencing? Is everybody quiet? Does anybody have a ham sandwich on the set?”
Jonne laughs. “Actually, that happened last year. We had a bear on set – and after all the memos, all the safety meetings, and all the admonitions about NO FOOD, someone decides to walk on set with a plate of tuna. Needless to say, I smelled it, caught it – it was like my radar went up immediately. We needed to get that off the set as quickly as possible.” Jonne shakes her head with bemused disbelief.
“I had another situation a few years ago where there was a wolf that was going to do a snarl, and the way we got the snarl was with his bone – he snarled because he wanted it. All the while, I noticed he kept sizing up a very small camera girl. I couldn’t figure out why he kept taking his attention off the bone. Finally I asked her, do you have any food on you, and she said, ‘Well, yes, I have my burrito, but it’s in my pocket, it shouldn’t be a problem.’ Well, of course a wolf could smell something like that a mile away. So it’s really about understanding both animals AND people.”
When asked about her experience dealing with the credit union, Jonne ‘’ enthusiastically recounts the details surrounding the purchase of her very first home. With the help of her realtor, Jonne had been actively looking at homes. After a few months, having not found the perfect place at the right price, she decided to take a break from her quest.
Then one day, quite out of the blue, her realtor called presenting her with a once in a lifetime opportunity – the perfect home at the perfect price. But to get it, she would have to agree to a 15-day escrow AND come up the down payment before the close of business that very day. Turns out, she had the funds, but not all in one institution. Jonne explains, “It was already late in the afternoon. I went to my bank to withdraw the funds on deposit, but they couldn’t help me … they claimed they needed more time. More time? I didn’t have more time.” With her 5:00 pm deadline rapidly approaching, she visited First Entertainment Credit Union. “Their response was entirely unexpected,” Jonne says, “They literally asked me ‘What can we do today to help you buy your first home?’ Not only did they go above and beyond to make the funds I had on deposit with them available, after verifying my balance with the other bank, they actually advanced me the total amount I needed in the form of a cashier’s check. I’ll just never forget the way they bent over backwards to help me.”
Much like the credit union, Jonne also goes the extra mile to provide great service. Jonne explains that a major part of her job is education, “A lot of times people don’t know they’re not allowed to do things. They themselves are fooled by filmand they say they saw it done in a movie and they don’t realize that that’s not how we did it, it’s part of the movie magic.” Jonne continues, “The most common mistake is that people think the animals are “movie animals,” and that nothing should bother them. They don’t realize the fact that they can be spooked by something. To a horse, if someone throws a cable past them, that can look like a snake, and that’s something a horse would shy away from. People forget that at the end of the day, it’s still a lion, still a tiger, still a bear. You can’t just go pet it on the nose and give it a big hug. They’re still wild at heart.”
As you talk to Jonne, you start to realize all the variables she has to cope with. “I was on a show with horses,” Jonne says, “and we had worked with them for months. Out of the blue they started acting up. We were at a very big movie ranch, and they kept sniffing the air and it just didn’t seem right. So I went and asked the owners of the ranch, was there a fire, or maybe a cougar that had been reported in the area? They said no, but we have a photo shoot on the other side of the ranch using a tiger. So we humans couldn’t see it or smell it, but the animals were cueing us that something that was bigger than they are was in the neighborhood.”
And it’s not just lions and tigers and bears Jonne protects either. Sometimes it’s even worms.
“I worked with maggots last week, and people really don’t understand insects. I had a scene where I had a dead body and we came in and put 5,000 wax worms on it, which are a little bigger than maggots. Ew! People say, ‘Well what’s the big deal if a couple get loose or somebody steps on a few?’ But here’s the big deal. And it’s something we run into a lot.” Jonne leans forward to emphasize her point. “If you start doing that then the center will not hold. It has to be that we protect every living, sentient creature. If you say you can squish a worm, then the next thing you know, you’ve got a precedent and somebody will want to do the same thing with a snake. And then it’s a hamster, a cat, a dog, a horse and the whole thing goes into chaos and you don’t have control over anything anymore.”
Jonne explains it powerfully and succinctly. “We are the voice for these animals. It’s as simple as that.” Jonne, you are speaking our language.