The virus took hold of the set rather quickly. It was February in British Columbia, the perfect time and place to film exterior winter shots, but an environment that only helped the illness spread faster. Production tried to prevent impending disaster, quarantining those infected, giving them IV drips in between scenes. But it was too late. The virus had already sunk its teeth into so many. And that’s how five puppies ended up dead during the filming of Snow Buddies

A lot of people probably don’t know what Snow Buddies is. They probably don’t know that it’s a straight-to-DVD Disney movie about a group of talking puppies who set out to win an Alaskan dog sled race, let alone that it’s the seventh film in the Air Bud universe. Those who are acquainted with the movie, who know that the titular Buddies are the offspring of the golden retriever who broke the animal barrier and set state records for high school basketball and football in Air Bud and Air Bud: Golden Receiver, probably think fondly of Snow Buddies. It’s a valid entry in the Air Bud saga, a cute sequel to the first Air Buddies, and a reminder of the franchise’s better times, before things truly went off the rails with 2011’s Spooky Buddies. But the behind the scenes story of the making of Snow Buddies is much darker than that, a tale of negligence and malfeasance in the thirst to expand profit margins and corner the dog movie market.

Before Snow Buddies began filming in early 2007, Keystone Productions purchased 25 golden retriever puppies from Alex and Suzana Schock, who ran a commercial breeder out of White Lake, N.Y., a Hudson Valley town about two hours outside of New York City. The dogs were put on a plane at JFK Airport and shipped across the country to Sea-Tac in Seattle, Wash., where a Snow Buddies employee picked them up and brought them to set. 

When a representative for the American Humane Association—the group that asserts that “no animals were harmed in the making of this film”—arrived on set on Feb. 19, the first day of filming, trouble was already brewing. Of the 30 dogs acquired by production (five more had been bought from a Canadian breeder), 15 were on set. The other 15 had been showing signs of illness for about two weeks, and were being treated by local veterinarians. They were eventually diagnosed with giardia and coccidia, a parasitic disease common among young dogs. 

Therein lied a huge problem, and signified just how gross Snow Buddies’ mismanagement of their animals was. Movies are generally required to only use dogs eight weeks or older, primarily because of the health complications that can arise if a puppy is separated from its mother earlier than that. The AHA found that the Snow Buddies dogs were just six weeks old—in violation of the USDA’s Animal Welfare Act—making them extremely vulnerable to illness. What’s worse, the lower mainland of Vancouver, where Snow Buddies was filming, had been experiencing an outbreak of parvovirus—another highly contagious virus that often preys on puppies—for at least six months before cameras started rolling. As many as six puppies fell ill to that particular virus. The production team behind Snow Buddies had, whether they realized it or not, basically fashioned their set into a death trap, and thrown a bunch of animals with underdeveloped immune systems into it.

With so many already exposed, the 30 puppies were removed from the set. And then a bad situation got worse: three dogs were euthanized due to intestinal complications. The death total rose to five when two other puppies perished. 

In March of 2012, HBO’s prestige drama Luck, about a cast of characters tethered to a horseracing track in California, was canceled in the wake of animal rights violations. The cancelation came one day after a horse named Real Awesome Jet was euthanized after an on-set accident. The thoroughbred’s death was the tipping point for Luck; two horses had died before, and furthermore, the show had been accused of using horses that were elderly and injured, and allegedly sometimes even drugged. Though the show had been renewed for a second season immediately after it premiered, HBO had to change course. With PETA and AHA breathing down their neck, the network decided to buckle under the pressure.  

Disney would do no such thing with Snow Buddies. Having shipped away the first group of puppies—sick, but still living—production hired 28 new golden retrievers, who were all subsequently exposed to parvovirus. Finally, filming was temporarily suspended. 

“The company producing Snow Buddies has complied with each request from American Humane and has made changes so that working puppies will not be put in any position where they may fall ill,” AHA wrote in a statement. “All of the dogs in the production now have been checked and are being cared for by a veterinarian.” With the AHA’s blessing—if you could call it that, since it came after multiple paragraphs detailing the deaths of young canines—Snow Buddies finished filming. But the controversy surrounding the movie was far from dying down. 

In March of that year, PETA faxed a letter to Disney CEO Bob Iger demanding that he cancel the studio’s planned distribution of the movie. “We have since learned that almost all the puppies, as many as 40 or 50, are now sick, many with the deadly parvovirus. At least four have died already, and others likely will die in the next few days,” the letter said in part. PETA reportedly received no response. As for Keystone Productions, PETA’s special projects coordinator on entertainment issues, Bob Chorush, told Deadline that the company had initially “misinformed” PETA, and then completely broke off communication. 

There was plenty of finger-pointing when it came to determining a culprit for these dog deaths. Keystone, and even AHA, placed blame on the breeders, who were actually accused of falsifying dog documents. Alex Schock didn’t back down, however, claiming that he didn’t know he was shipping underage puppies, and that he expected the production team to take care of the puppies he sent to them. “You are assuming that Disney and their production company are going to be taking care of these animals like kings and queens,” Schock told the Times Herald-Record. “Now I look like the evilest guy around.” The Schocks would eventually file a lawsuit against Keystone, claiming that they had been financially hurt in the wake of the puppy scandal, and that the production company still owed them for the puppies who had not been returned.

Considering the world’s attachment to dogs, especially adorable ones like golden retriever puppies, it’s remarkable how little of footnote this story is in Air Bud lore. Even at the time, the puppy-killing virus that swept through the Snow Buddies set barely registered. In a last gasp attempt to put a scarlet letter on the movie, the AHA deemed Snow Buddies’ treatment of animals “Unacceptable.” The credits didn’t feature that heartwarming assurance that “no animals were harmed;” instead, there was the ambiguously ominous sentence, “American Humane monitored the animal action.” But it didn’t matter. The movie was released in February 2008, morbidly almost exactly a year after the five dogs died, and to this day it’s reportedly made over $50 million in DVD sales. We’ll probably never know who was really at fault, but also how Disney managed to sweep the deaths and serious illnesses of so many puppies under the rug.  

Since then, five other Buddies movies have been made. Fortunately, those subsequent productions managed to not kill any dogs.

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