Six months later Air Buddy died in his sleep due to complications from cancer on February 10, 1998, at his owner’s San Diego home. At the time of his death, Buddy was 9 years old.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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