Cinema for Social Change? - Part 3
An Animal Rights Article from


Loredana Loy on Humane Research Council (HRC)
July 2012

Part 3

Part 1
Part 2

In the first post of this series, I discussed the significance of positive nonhuman animal (hereafter animal) representations in cinema and the innate ability of these representations to create social change. In the second installment, I analyzed some of the animal-centered discussion generated through movies, by looking at the media and public discourse surrounding the 2011 blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In this final installment, I examine the manner in which the animal advocacy movement has engaged with the aforementioned discourse.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes has not gone unnoticed in the animal advocacy movement. The movie has ignited the interest of an eclectic group, from philosophers and scholars, to animal advocates and politicians working on animal protection issues. Professor Peter Singer’s ape-rights focused piece entitled “A Planet for all Apes” in The Globe and Mail, [1] commends the movie’s writers and director for acknowledging the ethical problems involved with exploiting animals, as well as for not using real animals in the making of the movie. The Seattle Times ran an article entitled “Depiction of Lab Animals in Planet of the Apes Disturbingly Accurate” [2] written by primatologist Debra Durham. Durham writes: “More than 1,000 chimpanzees are kept in labs, going from one experiment to the next until they die. The cages in the film are legit. Small. Barren. Scary. Some apes, like the movie character Caesar, were born in labs while others were stolen from the wild and have been in experiments for 30, 40 or even 50 years. Getting great apes out of labs wouldn't take special effects or suspenseful plot twists. It would just take a vote.”

In terms of advocacy, some animal protection organizations embraced the opportunity provided by Rise’s success to promote their work and raise awareness about the issues showcased by the movie. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) seized the moment and issued a call to action entitled “The Real Planet of the Apes” in which undercover footage from a testing facility was presented and a petition to stop animal testing was provided.[3]

The CEO of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Wayne Pacelle wrote in his blog: “Last month, director Rupert Wyatt released ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ to positive reviews, especially within the animal protection community, given the director's use of computer-generated imagery and human actors that substituted for the use of live apes in the film.”[4]

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) increased its focus on animal testing communication around the time of the movie’s release, sending out a newsletter highlighting the downfalls of animal testing.[5] PETA also used the movie to raise awareness about the plight of animals in entertainment [6] and leafleted outside of movie theaters to spread the word about Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act (GAPCSA). PETA’s president, Ingrid Newkirk, used Rise as a hook for her open editorial in The Huffington Post [7] in which she discusses the issues involved with testing on apes.

Smaller grassroots groups such as Stop UBC Animal Testing, an organization from Vancouver, Canada, called the movie “the greatest animal rights commercial of all times.” The group held a public education event on the issue of animal experimentation, which involved a demonstration and a screening of Rise.[8]

Rise also won the prize for Best Feature Film at HSUS’ Genesis Awards [15] this May for “its examination of the ethical issues surrounding the use of nonhuman primates in research, and for suggesting that doing so might rebound in some unexpected ways.”[16] PETA also gave Rise’s director Rupert Wyatt a Proggy Award in 2011 for “recognizing that real great apes don't belong on production sets.”[17]

PCRM, PETA, and HSUS have all been working on campaigns to end medical testing on apes for years. PCRM and HSUS have teamed up and garnered the involvement of Republican Representative Roscoe Bartlett who introduced the GAPCSA (S. 810) bill.[9] The media took note, and in an article entitled “Bartlett Sanctuary Plan Would Rescue Chimps, Taxpayers” on Fox News, the public was informed that “Bartlett joined with the Humane Society of the United States and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to stump for a bill to prohibit ‘invasive research’ on chimpanzees and retire the approximately 500 government-owned chimps currently in laboratories to private sanctuaries within three years.”[10]

Bartlett wrote a letter to The New York Times (NYT) entitled “Stop Using Chimps as Guinea Pigs,”[11] five days after Rise’s release, calling for an end to all experiments on apes. NYT also published a letter written in response to Bartlett’s piece by HSUS’ senior officer Mike Markarian. Markarian’s letter quotes the changes demanded by Bartlett (and heralded by the movie): “Chimpanzees have largely failed as a research model, so at any given time, 80 to 90 percent of chimpanzees in American laboratories are warehoused in barren, costly laboratory cages at taxpayer expense...”[12] One way of explaining this temporary pro-animal benevolence of the media is to attribute it to the momentum created by Rise.

In general, the media tends to ignore the animal rights movement.[13] For example, one study shows that media coverage of the vivisection debate is rather infrequent, on average two to three print articles and three broadcast segments a year over the period of the study (1984 to 1993).[14] The stories covered were usually in response to some violent action. Thus, the animal rights campaigners were given low political standing by the media. The animal experimenters were given a rather high political standing. Stories presenting potential new medical advances received positive attention, while the fiascoes of animal-based research were rarely brought to the attention of the public unless pushed by animal advocates.

In contrast, the relative abundance and positive media attention showered upon the anti-animal testing issue as a result of Rise’s success is unique. Furthermore, many animal advocacy groups used the animal-centered discourse produced by the movie to promote this important animal protection issue and managed to create an impetus around it.

It is clear that the discourse created around movies such as Rise, War Horse, Free Willy, Rio, Hoot and so on, can be accessed by animal advocacy organizations and used to their advantage to further the cause of animal liberation, or promote work on single-issue campaigns. There are several major pro-animal themed releases per year, including animation and feature films. From a strategic planning point of view, this could involve developing certain communication tactics that are to be employed when cinematic events occur. In addition, this would allow organizations to use their limited budgets more effectively, because rolling out campaigns in these auspicious times would augment their campaigns’ impact.

And finally, the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works held a hearing on the GAPCSA in May (2012) and a vote on the bill is expected soon. You can sign the petition in support of this bill here and here


  1. Singer, P. (2011). A planet for all apes. The Globe and Mail.
    Durham, D. (2011). Depiction of Lab Animals in Planet of the Apes Disturbingly Accurate. Seattle Times.
  3. PCRM’s “The Real Planet of the Apes”
  4. Wayne Pacelle’s blog
  5. PETA’s August 8th e-newsletter
  6. PETA’s animal’s in entertainment newsletter
  7. PETA’s Huffington Post op-ed
  8. Stop UBC Animal Testing
  9. Bill 810
  10. Fox News
  11. Bartlett, R. (2011). Stop Using Chimps as Guinea Pigs. The New York Times.
  12. Markarian, M. (2011). Research on Chimps. (2011, August 20). The New York Times.
  13. Kruse, C. R. (2001). The movement and the media: Framing the debate over animal experimentation. Political Communication. 18(1), p.67.
  14. Kruse, C. R. (2001). The movement and the media: Framing the debate over animal experimentation. Political Communication. 18(1), p.67.
  15. The Genesis Awards is an event that “pays tribute to the major news and entertainment media for producing outstanding works that raise public awareness of animal issues”
  16. Quote from the Genesis Awards Show broadcast on Animal Planet on May 5th, 2012.
  17. PETA’s Proggy’s Awards

Loredana Loy is a graduate student at New York University. Her research is focused on cinema as a potential tool for the promotion of the animal liberation movement. Loredana is currently an intern at the Humane Research Council.

Return to Animal Rights Articles