How we treat non-human animals is a reflection of our personal and collective ethos; one often mired in a subconscious belief that humans have a monopoly on sentience and therefore value. Our film sets are no exception.
I was watching an episode of ‘The Good Place’ recently. I was disappointed and confused to see the use of wild and exotic animals in a television show starring not one but two supposed animal rights activists – Kristin Bell and Ted Danson. The episode, ‘Existential Crisis’, featured a crowded party scene with a live chained bear, giraffe, an elephant, a tethered diaper-wearing primate, a bin full of dogs, and a horse decked out like a unicorn.
Whether we want to admit it or not, our industry encourages and funds the abuse, exploitation, and neglect of both wild and domesticated animals. This exploitation spans from violent dog trainers who ‘hang’ and ‘helicopter’ dogs into submission to supporting the exotic animal trade by featuring giraffes and elephants in our productions.
Full disclosure, I worked with a dog on set twice both over a decade ago. On both occasions, the dogs were on set only briefly. Each dog seemed happy to get hot dog treats but I honestly can’t say what methods the trainers used in their training process. Just because I would like to think they were non-aversive doesn’t mean they were.
As someone who works closely with behavioral special needs rescue dogs and is a soon-to-be CPDT, I know first-hand it can be easy for people to be fooled into thinking all trainers use only non-violent methods. It’s simply not true. So even if abuse and negligence isn’t happening on set it doesn’t mean it isn’t present at so-called training facilities. This becomes more glaringly true for wild animals in captivity – like Taj the elephant used in ‘Water for Elephants’. Footage revealed Taj and other elephants allegedly being abused by their trainers at Have Trunks Will Travel some years prior to filming the movie. The company denies wrongdoing however the methods revealed in the video are impossible to write off as humane. Why does this matter and how is this connected to the production? Those animals would not have been captured, bred in captivity, and forcefully trained to ‘perform’ if the demand didn’t exist. The owners are there to make a profit after all.
No animal can perform in a film without training. All the behavior you see in a film or television show is trained behavior. It’s done on cue, it’s not spontaneous. Sadly the standard practice for training has been and still is rooted in violence: methods we would call negative reinforcement and positive punishment. This means inflicting some sort of harm, pain or discomfort either when an undesired behavior occurs or a desired behavior is not performed. Methods can include shocking, prodding, beating, biting, chocking, pinning, and kicking. Tools for punishment range from hands, fists, and knees to chains, electric prods and shocks, hot pokers, whips, and more. None of these methods should ever be justifiable.
A brief look at films from the noughties to present day shows an alarming trend of animals being harmed and even dying on set. Two horses died on the set of ‘Flicka’. In Disney’s ‘Eight Below’, a husky was severely beaten by a trainer including being punched in the diaphragm five times. A giraffe died on the set of ‘Zookeeper’, a horse was fatally impaled during the filming of Hallmark’s ‘Everlasting Courage’, a shark died in a 2013 Kmart commercial, 27 animals died on Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.’ In ‘A Dog’s Purpose’ a German Shephard named Hercules nearly drowned while being forced to perform. On the HBO production, ‘Luck’, the American Humane Association (AHA) allegedly terminated Barbara Casey and several employees after they reported mistreatment and illegal drugging of horses to AHA’s upper management. Casey’s testimony to the Pasadena Humane Society & SPCA revealed:
“Staff had been prevented from taking action because AHA’s upper management did not want to ‘upset’ the production staff. […]a trainer named Matthew Chew had used real racehorses and routinely drugged them either to sedate them or to get them to continue performing despite being exhausted, in pain or injured.”
Two horses died in the first season. HBO finally cancelled the series after a third horse died in season two. She sustained fatal head injuries and had to be euthanized.
Despite the occasional investigative report on this dark aspect of our industry, not much has changed. The reason for this is two-fold: the first is – despite animal welfare acts – the law largely recognizes animals as property leaving them with very few to no legal rights which, in turn, makes it difficult to prosecute animal cruelty cases. The second reason is that humans simply don’t care. Laws or not, we literally just don’t care enough. We’re more concerned with being entertained and turning a profit and the American film industry is a mechanistic factory model which results in commodification over caring.
A look at many reports of animal abuse in productions, and one starts to see a common denominator: the corruption and deficiencies of the American Humane Association (AHA). The AHA’s duty on set is to protect the animals yet their consistent failure reduces the highly coveted ‘No Animals Were Harmed’ stamp to nothing more than a feel good statement for filmmakers and audience members alike. A prime example is from the ‘Life of Pi’ set. A leaked email from AHA monitor, Gina Johnson, revealed the Bengal tiger, King, nearly drowned on set and the incident was covered up:
“Last week we almost fucking killed King in the water tank,” wrote monitor Gina Johnson. “This one take with him went really bad and he got lost trying to swim to the side. Damn near drowned.” She added: “I think this goes without saying but don’t mention it to anyone, especially the office! I have downplayed the fuck out of it.”
It’s important to remember that the animals you see in films and television and that you work with on set didn’t actually consent to being there. They are literally at the mercy of the humans that take them into their care. The next time you see a live animal in a television show or film, I strongly urge you to consider how that being got there and question why their exploitation is justifiable. Better yet, instead of supporting entertainment that exploits animals, take the money you would have spent on that movie ticket, digital download, or DVD, and donate it to the ALDF or your local animal rescue.
Animals are not for our entertainment. Surely we can find ways to tell stories without cruelty, exploitation and suffering.