Animal-rights protesters plan to picket the UK premiere of The Hobbit after whistleblowers came forward to claim three horses died unnecessarily during filming.
The first film in director Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of the JRR Tolkien novel, starring Martin Freeman, is expected to pack out cinemas when it hits screens next month.
But the release of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has been tainted by claims that poor animal-welfare standards on location in New Zealand contributed to the preventable deaths of more than 20 animals including horses, sheep, goats and chickens.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals claims that concerns were raised early on in the filming, with one animal handler, known as a wrangler in the film business, warning in late 2010 that the farm where the animals were kept was full of "death traps".
In total, four wranglers raised their concerns to PETA, saying they had been ignored by the film company despite repeated warnings.
Two horses died after breaking their necks on the set after they were run off embankments, while another died, probably of colic, after his diet was suddenly changed, it is claimed. The wranglers also allege that goats and sheep died from worm infestations and falling into sinkholes, while unprotected chickens were killed by dogs.
Several wranglers resigned after the death of the first horse and one claimed he was fired for bringing up the issue of animal safety on set.
No animals were harmed while the cameras rolled, overseen on set by the American Humane Association, but the farm where they were kept included sinkholes, broken fences and bluffs where the animals were injured.
PETA yesterday accused the Hobbit film-makers of taking the industry a "disgraceful" step backwards over its animal care and announced plans to picket the premieres in Britain, the US and New Zealand.
Mimi Bekhechi, associate director of Peta in the UK, said: "This production's decision to use numerous live animals and allow them to suffer needlessly and die takes the entertainment industry a giant and disgraceful step backwards."
A spokesman for Jackson said the company had improved the conditions for the animals after two of the horses died. He said the production company had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on improving the facilities at the farm.
The Hobbit is one of the most anticipated films of the year, following Jackson's acclaimed The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The first of a planned $500m trilogy will premiere in Wellington on 28 November and open around the world next month.
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