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Giraffe dies on movie set at zoo

Activists press for investigation

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / September 15, 2009

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Tweet, the beloved giraffe who rose to animal fame as a star in the classic Toys “R’’ Us commercials, who provided laughs alongside Jim Carrey in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,’’ died Friday after filming his latest movie at the Franklin Park Zoo.

The 18-year-old giraffe apparently collapsed in his enclosure at the zoo while feeding and in the care of his trainer, according to a group that monitors animals on film sets.

Tweet had completed shooting his part in the movie, Kevin James’s “The Zookeeper.’’

The animal had no known health problems and no evident cause of death, said American Humane, the independent animal welfare organization that oversees movie sets.

A necropsy has been performed, and the results are pending. Tweet did not belong to the Franklin Park Zoo.

The timing of his death raised concerns by the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which only a month ago sent a letter to the movie’s cast alleging a history of abuse by the film’s animal training crew, and urging the movie’s producers to use alternative ways to cast animals, such as computer-generated imagery.

“When it comes to exotic animal characters, the best casting choice is to ‘fake it,’ ’’ Debbie Leahy, PETA’s director, said at the time. “Even under the best of circumstances, captivity can be hell for exotic animals.’’

Yesterday, Lisa Wathne, PETA spokeswoman, said, “We’re not surprised by this, and think it’s further evidence that using animals in this way is simply inappropriate and wrong for so many reasons.’’

She said her organization would ask the US Department of Agriculture to investigate.

Tammy Sandler, a publicist for the movie, said film producers would not comment on PETA’s allegations, as they did not address the letter that was sent to the film’s cast, including James, Cher, the voice of the giraffe in the movie, Rosario Dawson, Sylvester Stallone, and Adam Sandler.

But Sandler did point out that the treatment and training of animals in the movie has been supervised by American Humane.

The organization released a statement yesterday saying it could “attest to the animal’s proper treatment and positive training and handling during the production.’’

“The giraffe’s entire role in the production had recently been completed, and he was content in his enclosure at the time of his unfortunate collapse,’’ the statement said.

A certified animal safety representative was with the giraffe when it collapsed and during the necropsy.

American Humane also said it will remain involved in the movie set and with the activities of the animals, and follow the course of the necropsy results.

Zoo officials, noting that the animal was not owned by the zoo, deferred comment to the movie’s producers.

PETA’s concerns were based on the movie producers’ use of Gary Gero’s Birds & Animals Unlimited, a California-based animal trainer, saying the company had been cited by the Department of Agriculture for animal welfare violations. The charges include: failure to provide veterinary care, failure to provide animals with minimum space, failure to clean filthy cages, and failure to provide animals with proper shelter.

A spokesman for the animal training company did not return a call for comment yesterday.

But last month, when PETA sent its letter, the company responded by saying it has been in business nearly 50 years, is respected, and cares for its animals, and that PETA has been misinformed on past characterizations on animal treatment.