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Animal Law Update

Animals in Film: Capitalizing on Suffering

By Nicole Pallotta, Academic Outreach Manager

Amid growing public concern about the abuse of animals used in the entertainment industry comes another disturbing instance highlighting the fact that there is only one way to ensure a film production is humane: keeping animals off the set. The film A Dog’s Purpose has come under scrutiny after a video surfaced last week showing a distressed German shepherd being forced into churning water meant to simulate rapids on the set of the film. The video was widely circulated and public condemnation was swift, including calls for a boycott of the film. Amid this firestorm of negative publicity, the premiere of the film, scheduled for last weekend, has been cancelled. The film is still scheduled for nationwide release on January 27.

Ironically, films like this capitalize on the tender feelings and strong bond many movie-goers have with their dogs. Mainstream films reflect the dominant culture, and stories featuring a sympathetic dog as a main character have become more common as the status of companion animals in American society has evolved to a point where most Americans consider them family rather than property.

While the popularity of these movies capitalizes on that bond, their treatment behind the scenes reveals an uncomfortable contradiction. The law still classifies animals as property, and this disconnect allows them to be treated like props behind the screen while being idealized as family members on it. The film industry has had it both ways – profiting off audience’s love for animals while simultaneously mistreating them.

However, the tide is turning and forcing animals to perform unnatural acts for our entertainment is increasingly being rejected. Growing public scrutiny and declining profits have caused amusement industry giants like SeaWorld and Ringling Brothers to discontinue their use of animals (and in Ringling’s case, to shut down completely). Behind-the-scenes videos like this, showing a panicked dog being forced to “perform,” demonstrates that it is not only captive exotic animals who suffer in the entertainment industry. Companion animals are also subject to abuse and mistreatment.

But aren’t these animals protected, perhaps even pampered on set? Far from it. A recent PETA investigation into Birds and Animals Unlimited, a major supplier of “animal talent,” including to A Dog’s Purpose, as well as popular film and TV productions like Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and Pirates of the Caribbean, uncovered horrific conditions and overt neglect of animals in their care. As with all industries that use animals, abuse thrives in the absences of transparency and oversight. Many moviegoers assume that the animals they see on screen were free from harm because the American Humane Association (AHA) – the only industry body that certifies the humane care of animals in Screen Actors Guild films – reassuringly says so at the end of each film in which animals appear. However, the AHA’s approval has been given to many films in which animals were, indeed, harmed.

To name just two examples, in 2013, The Hollywood Reporter released an exposé revealing that “King,” a Bengal tiger used in the Oscar-winning film Life of Pi, nearly drowned during the film’s production. Yet this film still received a “No Animals Were Harmed” rating from the AHA. And in 2012, we learned that 27 animals were killed during production of The Hobbit – a film that mind-bogglingly also received AHA approval. In addition, AHA does not address the conditions in which animals forced to perform in movies live off the set, nor the training methods used to make them perform.

People are fascinated by animals and will always want to see them on film. Thanks to sophisticated modern technology, this is possible without a single animal suffering. There is simply no reason to force live animals to perform on screen when we have such rich replacements at our fingertips. For example, the wondrous and award-winning live-action film The Jungle Book (2016) – a cinematic triumph filled with amazing and lifelike animals – was filmed completely with computer-generated imagery (CGI) except for the human actor who played Mowgli.

We can hope the public relations disaster that has befallen the makers of A Dog’s Purpose serves to stoke reform in the film industry. Future producers may decide the cost of using live animals is too high when humane (and visually stunning!) alternatives are available. Opportunities abound to feature realistic awe-inspiring CGI animals in film while keeping live animals off the set. Just look at The Jungle Book. A critical and commercial success grossing over $966 million, it ably demonstrated a movie can be filled with animals yet use none in production.

Further Reading:

  • Wells, Stephen. “Animals Were Harmed – the Suffering of Animals Who Entertain Us.” Animal Legal Defense Fund. January 23, 2014
  • Molidor, Jennifer. “Are the Oscars Celebrating Animal Cruelty?” Animal Legal Defense Fund. February 23, 2013.