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In wake of Tweet the giraffe's death, PETA calls on Adam Sandler to forgo the use of animal actors

September 24, 2009 |  7:56 pm

Sandler

Adam Sandler is, by most accounts, a good-natured funnyman whose only known offense against animals is a scene from "Billy Madison" in which he pursues a hapless penguin while driving a golf cart.  (In Sandler's defense, it's actually a human in a giant penguin suit.)  Silly, sure.  But it certainly doesn't represent cruelty to animals.

So why is PETA so upset?

Sandler's production company, Happy Madison, is producing the comedy "Zookeeper" (for which Sandler will also provide the voice of a monkey character).  The film features talking animals that interact with star Kevin James, so, predictably, a bevy of animal actors is involved in the filming.  One of those, a giraffe named Tweet whose previous credits included "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and commercials for Toys R Us, collapsed and died in his enclosure at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo this month after wrapping his scenes in the film. 

Although Tweet's scenes in "Zookeeper" were filmed at Franklin Park, the giraffe belonged not to the zoo but to a Florida company called Animals in Motion, which supplies exotic animals for film and television shoots.  According to Patty Rivers, a co-owner of Animals in Motion, Tweet's death was sudden and shocking.  Veterinarians "said he was in excellent shape and everything looked good," Rivers said in an interview with the Gainesville Sun. "We think he had a brain aneurysm or a stoke or something because it happened so quick."  Tweet was 18 -- not elderly by giraffe standards, but definitely getting on in years (giraffes typically live up to 25 years in the wild).

Within days, PETA had called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate the giraffe's death as a possible case of animal neglect, citing an unidentified "whistleblower" who it says came forward with allegations that Tweet had been improperly cared for on the set.  According to PETA, the whistleblower believed Tweet's death may have been the result of him ingesting pieces of a plastic tarp that covered his enclosure, and further alleged that both the giraffe's owner and his trainers had been told that he'd been seen chewing on the tarp, but had done nothing to stop him. 

The USDA is investigating the complaint.  "We'd be looking to see if Tweet’s death is related to any noncompliance with the Animal Welfare Act," spokesperson Jessica Milteer told the Boston Herald

According to PETA, the unnamed whistleblower also said Tweet had been kept in a 20-by-20-foot enclosure, tiny by giraffe standards, during the filming -- an allegation that American Humane Assn. spokesperson Jone Bouman calls "patently untrue."  American Humane, the organization behind the "No animals were harmed" end-credit disclaimer, had a representative on the set of "Zookeeper."  The representative was on site during filming to supervise the animals' care and was also present during a necropsy performed after Tweet's sudden death.

No trace of the rumored tarp was found during the necropsy; in fact, the testing "showed nothing unusual that was immediately apparent, but data from the necropsy has been sent to a zoological pathologist for a complete analysis," according to a statement released by American Humane. The statement goes on to note that American Humane's Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media "are currently in place [on the set of "Zookeeper"] and have been followed rigorously by all parties under the strict supervision of our representative on site."

Bouman described Tweet's role in "Zookeeper" as one of "mild action," in which he was used primarily as an extra who appeared mainly in background shots.  Some close-up shots were taken, but his role in the film included nothing strenuous or particularly taxing, she said.

But such assertions from American Humane, which has monitored the use of animals in film and television since the 1940s, have done nothing to diminish PETA's resolve to make a martyr out of Tweet.  Shortly after it called for the USDA investigation, the group fired off a letter to Sandler himself, asking him to pledge to use only animatronic or computer-generated animals in future films produced by his company and noting that other major films like "King Kong" used such technology. 

In the letter, Kristie Phelps, assistant director of PETA's Animals in Entertainment division, minced no words in describing her organization's estimation of American Humane. American Humane "does not monitor the pre-production training of animals (where most of the abuse takes place) or inspect the animals' long-term living conditions," Phelps wrote.  "Its guidelines are vague, and rarely -- if ever -- does [American Humane] file formal complaints against animal handlers, even under extreme circumstances, and it consistently gives its 'seal of approval' to exhibitors that are chronic violators of the Animal Welfare Act."

American Humane isn't the only group that takes issue with PETA's claims about Tweet's treatment on set; Animals in Motion also maintains that he was well cared for and even appeared to enjoy performing.  "PETA will say any bad thing they can think of because that's what they do," Harris told the Gainesville Sun.

Results of a full pathology report, which may help to shed light on what caused the giraffe's death, are pending.  Sandler has not responded to PETA's request.

[Correction 9/25/09: An earlier version of this post referred to the title of the film on which Tweet was working shortly before he died as "The Zookeeper."  The film is actually called simply "Zookeeper," and we've corrected the error.]

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Adam Sandler attends a Q&A Session for the film "Funny People" on Aug. 24.  Credit: Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images

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