We often delight in these animal actors but how much do we know about their lives on and off the set? Do they have paparazzi following them? Do they drink from water bowls made of Waterford? Are their trailers stocked with biscuits, bananas, oats, herring?
Remember “Hi Ho Silver, Away,” Lassie, Flipper, or J. Fred Muggs? If you do, you are showing your age, but you are also showing you are aware that animals have been used in television and film for decades. Maybe Chance, Sassy, and Shadow are more to your taste (Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey) or 101 Dalmatians. How about “Yo quiero Taco Bell”? We often delight in these animal actors but how much do we know about their lives on and off the set? Do they have paparazzi following them? Do they drink from water bowls made of Waterford? Are their trailers stocked with biscuits, bananas, oats, herring?
In the 1925 version of Ben Hur, 150 horses were killed during the famous chariot scene. Over the years, many other animals have suffered severe injuries and death during rehearsals and taping of other films and shows. Even as recently as 2005, during the remake of the movie Flicka, a horse was injured and had to be euthanized.
In 1940, the American Humane Association (AHA) created its Film and Television Unit. The mission of this unit is to protect animals while on the film or television set. Although the unit offers guidelines on appropriate care during preproduction, it does not monitor preproduction training. Also, the unit does not conduct background investigations of trainers to determine if they have ever been convicted of animal-related charges or violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The AHA Film and Television Unit, which has on-set jurisdiction from the Screen Actors Guild, observes approximately 850 productions a year with nine full-time field staff.
Animals as Symbols
Maybe a more basic question needs to be asked. Should we be using live animals, especially those taken from the wild or raised in captivity without appropriate habitat and familial support, to entertain us in film and television shows? From MGM’s lion to TriStar’s horse, from artsy films to Disney cartoons, animals have played their part, but at what cost?
Often animals are reduced to mere symbols on film. They do not stand for themselves but are rather a concept, a means to an end. Moby Dick and Equus are not about the animals but about humans’ working out their issues with the animals as objects of the humans’ rage and torment.
TV shows, such as Mr. Ed, do not portray horses as horses but as animals who speak in order to communicate with the human actors. When animals are portrayed as other than who they naturally are, the audience gets a distorted view of their true characteristics.
What happens to aging film and television stars? Some go on to do infomercials, but what of the aging animal actor? He or she often winds up in a roadside zoo, as prey in a canned hunt, or as a research specimen in a biomedical laboratory. Rarely does the retired animal actor have the cushy existence afforded an aging diva. Some are lucky enough to find homes in animal sanctuaries where they are cared for the rest of their lives or they are adopted by caring individuals. But there are not enough sanctuaries or caring humans to support all the animals used in film and on television.
Popularity of Animal Actors
Popular television shows and movies often spawn the creation of kitsch. While some of the items sold are harmless, the popularity of animals in films often creates a glut of these animals. To satisfy the demand, these animals are often overbred or captured, bought, and sold with little regard for their care.
For instance, following the release of 101 Dalmatians, Dalmatians became popular dogs. Many people who bought these dogs found out just how challenging having a working dog can be, so shelters then were inundated with dumped Dals.
The popularity of Marcel the capuchin monkey on Friends focused attention on keeping wild monkeys as pets. After Marcel’s debut on the popular sitcom, the United States saw an increase in the number of monkeys being brought into and sold within its borders.
Alternatives to Live Animal Actors
Today’s technology allows film and television producers to use animatronics and other computer-enhanced and digital animation to create all types of animal likenesses; they do not need to use live animals. Yet, even if live animals are not used, caution is still needed when electronically depicting animal behavior. There should be no acts of violence or abuse toward them. Nor, should they be made to perform absurd and unnatural behaviors. These acts do not promote healthy relationships between human and nonhuman animals.
We can, however, see animals in their natural habitat living their normal lives by viewing documentaries. Documentaries offer viewers a glimpse of the real animal in real life—not a screen writer’s version or a director’s perception. Documentaries, such as March of the Penguins, if done well, give viewers an opportunity to learn some aspect of the lives of the animals depicted in the documentary. The more knowledge we have of their true lives, the more likely we will be to save them from destruction.
Take Action to Help End Animal Use in Film and Television
What can you do to change what is happening to animals forced to perform for our entertainment in film and on television? First, avoid viewing films and shows that depict animals as mere props with little regard for their nature and their needs. Other humane actions include:
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