Mon 10.6.2014

The Truth About Cats and Dogs: How Animals Are Treated On and Off the Set

PETA animals

When I was a kid, a couple of my favorite TV shows were BJ and the Bear and Grizzly Adams. I remember envisioning the chimpanzee TV star hanging out in his awesome Hollywood apartment enjoying the good life. And I imagined that all those wonderful woodland creatures that hung out around the cabin in the wilderness all lived together on some perfect ranch. The truth about the plight of our animal actors is sadly far from my childhood fantasies. We had an opportunity to ask the people of PETA to share some FAQs, answers and misconceptions about the treatment of animals used on-set in the film and television industries.

What’s wrong with having wild animals on-set?
Many wild animals, like primates, elephants, bears and big cats, are extremely dangerous to humans, so trainers use food and water deprivation and physically abusive, fear-based training methods in order to ensure they have total control and can compel the animals to obey them during filming. Many of the behaviors that wild animals are forced to perform for entertainment are unnatural, and they’re put in situations that can be very stressful and even instigate aggressive behaviors.

Doesn’t the American Humane Association monitor the use of animals in film and television?
Many people in the entertainment industry assume that the American Humane Association (AHA) prevents the abuse of animals used in entertainment. But The Hollywood Reporter‘s investigation into the AHA, which was published in November, revealed what PETA has been helping to bring to light for years—that the AHA’s monitoring of film and television productions is woefully inadequate. As a result, animals have often been put in dangerous situations, injured or killed. More than two dozen animals died during the production of The Hobbit, in spite of AHA monitoring. The AHA does not monitor preproduction training, living conditions or the disposition of animals when they are no longer useful to their trainers. Unfortunately, the familiar “No Animals Were Harmed” stamp of approval is extremely misleading to filmmakers and audiences alike.

Aren’t the animals safer in captivity than they would be in the wild?
Off-set, living conditions for these animals are typically deplorable. Even the best-known exhibitors are frequently cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violating the Federal Animal Welfare Act, which establishes only minimal guidelines for animal care. These animals spend their entire lives living in extreme confinement, deprived of everything that’s natural and important to them, and often suffer from lack of adequate shelter, food and veterinary care.

I’ve seen animals on-set and they look happy and well taken care of, so what’s the problem?
The average person does not have the experience with wild animals that’s necessary to accurately interpret their behaviors and facial expressions. For example, when most people see chimpanzees and other primates “smiling” on television commercials or on greeting cards, they think the animal is expressing joy or laughing, but in fact the expression is known as a “fear grimace” to primatologists. It may look like a human smile but it’s actually an indicator of anxiety and stress. Only an animal expert can tell if an animal is frightened, physically suffering, or about to panic, so a lot can go undetected on-set where the cast and crew have little to no experience with the species being used.

I’ve been to training facilities and never seen any abuse; I know trainers who love their animals, and would never hurt them. It’s okay to work with them, right?
It’s not a question of whether or not they love the animals. Humans who abuse their children may still love their children. A trainer’s claim that he loves the animals doesn’t make it acceptable for him to keep these animals confined and deprive them of everything that’s natural to them. Physical abuse during training is standard practice, but of course a trainer wouldn’t beat an animal in front of a visitor, and they don’t need to abuse them on-set, because they’re already afraid.

What about animals who have lived with humans their whole life and are tame?
Many trainers claim that they have domesticated their wild animals, which is impossible. The term domestication refers to species at large, not individual animals. While they may have been exposed to humans enough to become accustomed to their presence, and even affectionate towards humans, wild animals can never truly be tamed. They will always retain the instinctive behaviors that make them dangerous. Chimpanzees can and do maim and kill humans—even in cases where they were raised by their human victims. This is also true for bears and big cats. A trainer may claim that his bear is safe around humans because he raised him from a cub. But a bear raised by humans in Hollywood is no less dangerous than a bear raised by his mother in the forest. Last year a captive grizzly bear at a wildlife casting agency mauled a man to death who was cleaning his cage. That bear had been raised by humans from infancy. 

Where do animal actors come from? What happens to them after they’re no longer useful?
Most animals used in film and TV are born in captivity and never know any semblance of the natural environment their species have evolved to live in. Many of these animals develop neurotic behaviors like pacing, over-grooming and self-mutilation due to lack of stimulation and companionship. They are often discarded after they’ve outlived their usefulness, and may be dumped at roadside zoos or sold into the pet trade. Chimpanzees, for example, become too strong to be safely handled around seven or eight years of age, and after they are dumped they can live another 40 to 50 years, often in miserable conditions. Horses have been sold to slaughter after being used on-set and big cats may even be killed in order to sell their skins, organs and other body parts on the black market.

I don’t ever want an animal to be harmed on one of my productions. What can I do to prevent that from happening?
The only way to be certain that an animal won’t be harmed during production is not to use them. Relying on computer-generated imagery, animatronics, stock footage, or simply writing an animal out of a script can save animals from lifetimes of suffering and save a production from a crippling amount of bad publicity. The public is becoming increasingly aware of the mistreatment of animals used in film and television and PETA frequently receives calls from whistleblowers who are no longer willing to be silent while animals suffer. Anyone who is considering working with animals on their projects or would like more information can visit or contact PETA’s Animals in Film and Television Division at for more information.

What should I do if I witness an animal being put in danger or abused on a production?
Anyone who witnesses any kind of mistreatment of an animal on a film production set, during transportation, or at a training facility can report it anonymously by visiting, or by calling PETA’s whistleblower hotline at 323-210-2233. In an emergency situation, please call your local police department and PETA’s 24-hour, nationwide emergency pager at 757-622-7382.

Tony Ferranti / Film Independent Blogger