In the 10 years since he began crusading for animal rights, game show host Bob Barker has grown accustomed to making enemies. The producers of the Miss U.S.A. Pageant, for example, were not pleased when he stopped hosting the show last year to protest the fact that fur coats were being given to contestants. And the hundreds of fur merchants who have gone out of business in recent years—in part because of Barker’s campaign against them—could hardly be counted among his fans. But until recently Barker’s adversaries generally just got mad, they didn’t try to get even.
Last month the counterattack began. In response to ads Barker and the United Activists for Animal Rights had run in Variety accusing them of negligence and incompetence, the American Humane Association, an organization that monitors the treatment of animals in show business, slapped the Price Is Right host with a $10 million suit for libel, slander and invasion of privacy. Also named in the action was the UAAR and its executive director, Nancy Burnet. “Bob Barker has said so many defamatory and distorted things about us—unless you do something, people start believing it’s true,” says AHA director Betty Denny Smith.
The friction between the two animal-rights factions began in 1987, when Barker heard rumors that chimpanzees on the set of Project X, a film starring Matthew Broderick, had been mistreated. He and Burnet did some investigating, and on the strength of their findings, the L.A. Department of Animal Regulation launched an inquiry. Barker says they learned that the chimps in the film had been beaten with blackjacks and clubs. A cattle prod and a gun had been seen on the set, along with a giant snake Barker believes was used to frighten the chimps.
The Department of Animal Regulation asked the L.A. district attorney’s office to bring charges against the film’s six animal trainers. But the film’s producers denied mistreatment, and the AHA, which had representatives on the set throughout filming, said its own investigation had turned up no evidence of abuse. As it turned out, the applicable statute of limitations on the case had run out by the time the DA was informed, and no charges were brought.
But Barker and Burnet were undeterred. Earlier this year the UAAR took out ads and ran photographs they claimed showed Project X trainers mistreating chimps. This spring, Barker and Burnet discovered new grist for their mill: reports that the AHA had allowed dogs used in The Tender, a John Travolta vehicle due out this fall, to be muzzled with wire and set against each other in vicious fight scenes. Those reports too found their way into the ads. “I would like to see all animals out of entertainment,” says Barker, who believes such mistreatment is rampant in the industry. “But of course that’s not going to happen. So we must provide the protection for these poor creatures that are exploited for man’s diversion.”
Betty Smith believes her organization is already doing just that. AHA officials claim that Barker’s incriminating photos show not instruments of torture but batons and plastic paddles used for reprimands and a snake used “to elicit a certain expression on the face of the chimp.” The dogs on the Tender set did fight, officials say, but with plastic muzzles that prevented them from hurting one another. “Barker has been very successful in creating the illusion of vast cruelty toward animals in film,” says Smith. “Nothing is perfect. But we just haven’t found that.”
Barker, however, is not alone in criticizing the AHA, which became a Hollywood watchdog 50 years ago in response to a public outcry after a horse used in Jesse James was run off a cliff. Pat Derby, head of the Performing Animal Welfare Society and a former trainer of TV animals, says, “I’ve watched the AHA a long time, and I believe it’s structured to be more of a protection agency for trainers. On every set I’ve ever worked on, when a rough scene was going to occur, the AHA rep was taken out for coffee.”
Smith’s organization does have its defenders. Fund for Animals President Cleveland Amory praises Smith for her “long record of animal protection.” Actress and animal rights activist Gretchen Wyler says, “The AHA is trying very hard. They’ve instituted a 24-hour animal cruelty hotline, for instance. I’ve been devastated by what Bob Barker has done to them.” And Julian Sylvester, a trainer on Project X, calls the AHA “excellent people. They protect us from these wackos—we’re talking extreme fanatics here.”
In Sylvester’s view, perhaps, Barker would qualify. But whatever the outcome of the suit against him, the game show host plans to keep pushing for better protection for nonhuman performers. “I am against exploitation in all forms,” he says. “I will continue my work on behalf of animals as long as there is breath in my body.”
—Lucinda Smith, Leah Feldon and Eleanor Hoover in L.A.