Thomas Edling poses in a polo shirt that has the American Humane logo

Credit: David Zentz

Thomas Edling helps keep Hollywood's animals safe

In August 2021, a moviegoer tweeted at director James Gunn, "After watching The Suicide Squad, I feel I have to ask. Why do you hate birds?" Gunn's response: "I honestly love birds." He included an on-set photo with a bird perched on his hand to prove his affinity for winged friends. For anyone watching in the theater, it might appear otherwise. In the first few minutes of the DC Comics supervillain movie, a vindictive dictator orders his henchmen to burn a birdcage filled with his opponent's prized pets. The ensuing bird bloodbath is graphic.

In reality, a coordinated effort with dozens of trained professionals helped pull off the caged carnage with nary a feather out of place. Strategic editing and post-production special effects made the scene seem real, but here's what really happened. The birds were filmed in their cages, separate from the actors. In post-production, they placed the actor in the cage of live birds.

In the scrolling end credits for The Suicide Squad and most movies that involve animals, there's an important (but probably unnoticed) statement: "No Animals Were Harmed," as certified by American Humane. For the past 80 years, American Humane's No Animals Were Harmed program has worked closely with production companies that film commercials, motion pictures, and television shows to ensure the safety of every creature involved. Before an animal even steps, swims, or canters on set, American Humane is involved.

It's no small feat to pore over the details of film scripts, edited scenes, and on-set productions to closely monitor the health and humane treatment of every animal. That responsibility falls to Thomas Edling, SPH '11 (MPH), who last year was appointed the chief veterinary officer for American Humane. Edling oversees almost 50 certified animal safety representatives, or CASRs, trained animal experts who keep careful watch on sets worldwide and provide guidance to each production team for a program that monitors the protection of nearly 100,000 animal actors each year. "We work closely with the production companies to help them get the shots they want while keeping the animals safe," Edling says, speaking from his home in Arizona.

With Hollywood productions ramping up again, Edling's new job entails being on call at a moment's notice. "It is not unusual to speak with a production person from Europe on one day and someone from South America the next." He typically starts his mornings scrutinizing animal scenes in films that want to secure the No Animals Were Harmed certification, particularly important for productions that rely heavily on animal actors, so audiences know they were treated humanely. What he's looking for in yet-to-be-released movie scenes is comprehensive animal safety. He compares the detailed notes from the CASR on set to what he sees on screen. Often, what looks real isn't, but he needs to verify. "[The production crew] will say, 'In this scene, there's a dog chewing on human intestines.' They'll send me a picture of a cadaver made by a special effects person, and in the photo, they hold up a receipt to show proof of purchase that it's not real," Edling says. "If there's anything gross or disgusting-looking, I'm watching and looking for receipts on all sorts of stuff."

Every CASR takes records while on set, such as this herd of horses went from point A to point B and traveled 50 feet in 10 minutes—and this was the bait (carrots) they used to lure them to a specific spot. Edling's day-to-day also involves answering calls from senior staff on location with a question from a director or producer. While the 132-page American Humane guidelines for safe animal use in filmed media cover many important aspects, inevitably the team will encounter new issues, such as how to muffle the loud sound of a falling refrigerator when there's a chicken nearby. Edling and colleagues remotely review the footage and brainstorm ways to both creatively and humanely pull it off. "Two or three of us will go back and forth on the phone to walk and talk through the details of the scene," Edling says. The falling refrigerator solution: Rubber matting to soften the "bang" and the presence of the chickens' handler. The chickens used are also all trained animal actors, well acclimated to being on production sets.

Ultimately, Edling approves every post- production No Animals Were Harmed certificate, though you'll never see his name in the end credits.

For Edling, this is a dream job. He grew up in both rural areas and urban centers of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Indiana, and Iowa. He moved several times because his father, who worked in the wholesale propane industry, managed a few different companies. The family eventually settled in Texas when Edling started high school.

His love of animals started at age 1, when his constant companion was a 75-pound female Weimaraner named Katy. The trained veterinarian breaks into a huge smile when he talks about how, when he was a toddler, Katy kept him from wandering into the street. The dynamic duo even cared for a young robin that had fallen out of its nest, with Katy guarding the baby bird and Edling caring for "Charlie," as he named it. "Katy made certain Charlie was safe around our home. I raised Charlie until he flew away at the end of the summer," Edling says. His undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University focused on industrial engineering. Post-college, he worked as a power plant engineer in Texas for 10 years, but he always wanted to be a veterinarian, so he took night classes to get the prerequisites to apply to veterinary colleges. His veterinary residency at North Carolina State University focused mainly on companion animals and wild avian medicine and surgery. An internship at Kaytee Products in its avian research center taught him about birds and exotic animals. During his residency, Edling could be found treating birds for fractured wings and performing soft-tissue surgeries to remove foreign bodies from a bird's gastrointestinal tract. But after eight years in clinical practice and four years in private practice, Edling made the decision in 2003 to work in the pet industry as a consultant. While some of his colleagues were dismayed that Edling chose an industry they didn't respect, he saw an opportunity to help more animals.

a collage of animals, with a video camera above them

Image credit: Brett Ryder

His initial gig was as Petco's first national veterinarian. Edling helped revise the standards of the animal supply company with 1,500 stores in the United States, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Under his guidance, Petco revised the supplier standards for nontraditional animals (reptiles, birds, and aquatic life) sold at its stores to ensure safe transport from shipping containers. He also developed care sheets that provided instructions for every animal sold to owners and the potential zoonotic diseases they may carry.

"If I do something that's best for animals in a Petco, those changes also affect other pet industry places," he says. "If I raise the standards for an animal breeder or supplier, that affects all the small, independent stores."

His position at Petco led him to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, and now, American Humane, an organization with more than 144 years dedicated to protecting all living creatures. He started as a consultant with the organization, reviewing and developing the safety guidelines for animals in filmed media. For the past three years he's been heavily involved in No Animals Were Harmed's production work, before becoming American Humane's chief veterinary officer.

The No Animals Were Harmed team gets involved on set from day one of production with specific actions to protect the animals' care. Marean Spero Steen, the national director of the No Animals Were Harmed program, says that American Humane staff might examine the environment—be it a sound stage or on location—to make sure it's safe for the animal to walk. They also check the temperature of where the animals are being filmed so that it's not too hot or cold; ensure that proper rest periods are scheduled; and look out for any potentially scary scripted effects—like gunshots or loud explosions—that might startle an animal and need to be added in post-production. "We watch for and make sure any signs of stress or fatigue are immediately addressed, and we advise on the use of multiple animal actors to play the same role in order to avoid the overworking of a single animal," says Steen, to whom Edling directly reports. "The No Animals Were Harmed program is sworn to protect every kind of living creature that appears in a film or a television production, from an ant to an elephant."

American Humane began its work in the film industry in 1925 when allegations arose over mistreatment of movie animals. In 1940, American Humane got involved after an incident occurred on the set of the film Jesse James. The movie had a scene in which a horse died after being forced to run off the edge of a cliff. An agreement was reached between the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America and American Humane that it would allow the organization to supervise all animal actions on set. American Humane's first actual No Animals Were Harmed end credit would appear in the 1972 movie The Doberman Gang. Today, it's hard to find a movie that doesn't have this line in the credits.

The American Humane–approved film Minari, a Best Picture Oscar nominee for 2021, had a scene filmed in a chicken warehouse in Oklahoma. The main characters were tasked with the unrelenting job of sorting chicks into male and female crates. At one point, actor Steven Yeun drops his crate of chirping baby chicks onto the floor. In reality, bloody fake chicks were filmed and edited together with real-life ones so it seems some of them were injured. Before the film was released, Edling pored over every detail to ensure that not one fluffy yellow chick was hurt. Another scene in the movie has a kid throwing a rock at a snake in a tree. Edling reviewed the safety representative's notes on how the snake was transported to the tree—in a plastic carry container with air holes, a water bowl, and bedding—and saw that the director got the shot and removed the snake before a single stone was thrown.

Once the camera starts rolling, the team's attention to detail is more than simply watching a scene—there's oodles of prep. If a horse walks through a stream, staff has tested the water ahead of time to know what's in there. If the creature swims in a river, American Humane checks with the governing body of that waterway to certify that the water is safe from pollution and cleared of debris, and that the riverbed is stable to walk through. If a dog is in a boat, Edling says that a scuba driver hangs upside down underneath that vessel the entire time of shooting. In the movie Crawl, a young girl drives through a treacherous rainstorm with her dog in the passenger seat. According to the film's certification records, two divers were always on set to supervise the stationary car partially submerged in a water tank. Pre-shooting, the dog's actions, sound effects, and visual effects were discussed in full. On the day of filming, the water was filtered and temperature checked (maintained at 84 degrees Fahrenheit), and dry safe areas were made available.

In one scene of Disney's The Jungle Cruise, starring Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson, viewers see conquistadors cross under a waterfall while pulling horses. In reality, there was no crashing waterfall. The horses were, in fact, on a blue carpet striding in front of a tall blue curtain inside a studio warehouse building. Trained animal handlers, dressed in costume, slowly walked the horses 5 feet across the carpet. The sparkling waterfall was added later in visual effects.

Edling says that CASRs go to great lengths to make sure their animal charge is comfortable in every situation. When a shoot is outdoors, the trained rep checks the weather forecast to anticipate possible problems on set. During a recent production that involved pigs on a farm, it was a 95-degree day in Los Angeles. "Usually, one of our reps would take that pig off the set and put it in an area where a fan is blowing or there's shade. But this farm was out in the middle of nowhere. When the pig was not in the actual shot, our CASR stood over the pig with a huge umbrella," Edling says. CASRs are either veterinarians, animal behaviorists, or animal trainers. To prevent burnout, Edling rotates who is on set, especially as productions ramp up again in a post-vaccine world. "Depending on the animal action and intensity, CASRs can be on sets for anywhere between a few hours to several weeks," Edling says. For longer productions, a No Animals Were Harmed pre-production team reviews all the animal-involved scenes and relays details to the CASR who writes daily reports for every creature. If the animal involvement is minimal, like a kitten sitting in a chair for a commercial, Edling says the CASR might just read the script and review storyboards prior to filming.

Susan Jackson, a senior adviser and senior certified animal safety representative based in Virginia, has worked on more than 200 productions to date, including the films Temple Grandin and The Alamo. When she arrives on a production set, Jackson inspects all aspects of the location that may affect the welfare of the animals, such as defects in the flooring where an animal's paw or leg could get stuck. "If I see something concerning, I will talk to the filmmakers and trainers to alter the action to keep it safe for the animals."

In the film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where Brad Pitt's dog attacks some intruders, Jackson says that the animal was well prepared behind the scenes. First, an American Humane CASR checks the dog to verify it's alert, healthy, and relaxed. Working dogs must be professionally trained and well prepared for the action ahead. The CASR consults with the production crew and animal trainers to go over the proposed actions and make sure they follow the No Animals Were Harmed guidelines. During multiple rehearsals, three dogs were switched out to make sure none was overworked and each had been given rest periods for food and water.

After the director calls action, the dog's trainer cues him to bite a padded arm sleeve. The trainer plays with the dog and moves his arm around while the dog growls. The actor's response is shot separately, and then the two are edited together to make it appear as though the action happened in real time. If a shot calls for a dog to attack a person, the production team often crafts a custom-made animatronic dog so that the real K9 won't simulate anything too risky. For this one scene, a puppeteer operated the animatronic dog, which had piped tubing with fake blood in its mouth. No animals, or humans, were harmed.

When Edling stepped into his role as American Humane's chief veterinary officer in July 2021, he was excited to continue his personal mission to advocate for animals. "It is a great opportunity to work within an organization that has been successfully helping animals since 1877 and has a proven track record of pushing the envelope and striving for more and better change," Edling says. Likewise, the esteemed organization was delighted to welcome him.

"Dr. Edling has a wide range of experiences as a veterinarian with a tremendously diverse range of animals in the United States and internationally, from common companion animals to birds to wild species," says Steen who stepped into her role as national director for American Humane's No Animals Were Harmed program in January 2020. "This is especially important for his role here, since American Humane saves, shelters, feeds, and protects nearly 1 billion animals worldwide each year, including pets caught in disasters, animal actors in film and television, remarkable and endangered species in zoos and aquariums, and hundreds of millions of animals living on farms and ranches. He brings a broad array of experience, knowledge, and lifelong commitment to the animals in all our programs."

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Edling says that American Humane was "instrumental in helping the public understand that COVID is a human disease … and animals do not play a significant role in transmissions." Hollywood productions during the pandemic had to follow strict CDC rules. "We developed guidelines for productions that ensured animals used on set were protected against COVID. Our American Humane COVID guidelines worked in conjunction with production guidelines to protect people and animals. No animals used in any movie/film production contracted COVID," Edling says.

In his line of work, monotony is never a problem. Edling loves the diversity of tasks.

"This job is perfect for someone like me with too many interests. I am in the position to use my engineering background, veterinary knowledge, and public health expertise on questions that inevitably arise."
Thomas Edling

"This job is perfect for someone like me with too many interests. I am in the position to use my engineering background, veterinary knowledge, and public health expertise on questions that inevitably arise," Edling says.

When Edling knew he wanted to study infectious diseases, specifically zoonotic diseases, he researched the best universities for public health, and Johns Hopkins University was at the top of his list. His longtime mentor Michael Stoskopf, who received his doctorate in environmental and biochemical toxicology from Johns Hopkins, said, "If you want a life-altering experience, go to Hopkins … there is no better place." Edling jokes that he was the old man on campus since he went back to school at the same time his daughter started college in fall 2008.

His lifelong love of animals goes beyond his day job. Edling is married to a veterinarian, who is an associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine. Together, the couple, who reside in Tucson, Arizona, care for two dogs, two chinchillas, one hedgehog, two birds, four fish, and one chameleon. They are also parents of 28-year-old twin sons, an older daughter, and now, they are happily grandparents. "We divide and conquer the animal duties at home and have a well-versed routine that is frequently disrupted by travel or changing schedules," Edling says, when asked how they manage their menagerie of mammals. Since the couple work mostly from home, they enjoy taking breaks to walk their dogs, Luke, an 8-year-old rescued pit bull, and Brody, a 1-year-old golden retriever. Edling considers his many pets as family members, and he cherishes the time he spends with each of them. "It's hard not to smile when you are concentrating on work and a dog drops a toy in your lap," Edling says.

Nowadays, the animal aficionado can take his knowledge of humane care and combine it with his dedicated passion to advocate for creatures big and small, wild and domestic. As film, TV, and commercial productions resume following a lengthy hiatus owing to the pandemic, Edling is back to his busy schedule. When we last caught up, he was called away on a new project for the next several weeks, dashing off to lead another team. He was eager to meet the four-legged actors. "Animals are incredible, and we, as humans, do not give them nearly enough credit for their intelligence and abilities. Simply being in a position where I get to be around animals and help improve their lives gives me joy."

Jennifer Chen is a Los Angeles–based freelance journalist.