A Watershed Moment for Hollywood's Animal-Rights Movement?

Films such as Blackfish, Finding Dory, and Planet of the Apes are taking a stand against live animals in entertainment as the federal government gets involved.
A still from the documentary Blackfish. (Dogwoof Global)

The practice of using animals for entertainment has long been controversial. In 1903, Thomas Edison was allowed to film the execution of Topsy, a circus elephant who had killed three men. He suggested hanging the animal, thinking it would be more visually striking, but the ASPCA protested, so electrocution was used instead. Thousands of people across the country saw his film of the electrocution.

But widespread discussion of the topic has been relatively quiet ever since the American Humane Association began monitoring the treatment of animals on film and television sets in 1940. (Though activists note the group's methodology has gaps: It doesn't cover the off-set training sessions, where cruelty can take place.)

Lately, though, the issue has been making headlines with surprising frequency. Last year, HBO's Luck was canceled amid protests over the deaths of two horses on set. Similarly, Peter Jackson was criticized for the deaths of up to 27 animals being used in The Hobbit. Now it appears we may be reaching a watershed moment, and on this particular issue, our society is working just how it is supposed to: with government and private industry responding meaningfully to changing social values.

Let's start with government. In June, the United States Fish and Wildlife Services responded to a petition by the Humane Society of the United States and other animal protection groups by issuing a draft rule that would classify all chimpanzees as endangered; currently, there is a split listing that allows captive chimpanzees to be considered only threatened, allowing them to be used in entertainment, while wild chimpanzees are given the protection that comes with the status of "endangered." If the new rule were enacted without any changes, it would make it extremely difficult to use chimpanzees in television, the movies, or in circuses (as well as in experimentation).

Even if the federal government backs down, the market—or at least Hollywood—is already responding. This summer's hottest documentary is Blackfish, which, in showing both the intelligence of sea mammals and the degree to which they suffer in confinement, makes a compelling case for ending their captivity at water parks like Sea World. Later this year, Woody Harrelson, a vegan, voices the lead character in Free Bird, an animated film that chronicles the effort of a pair of turkeys who travel back in time to get their ancestors off the plate at the first Thanksgiving, thus saving the lives of millions of unborn turkeys. In 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes eschewed both live chimpanzees and men in bad ape makeup, instead using cutting-edge motion-capture technology to create incredibly lifelike chimpanzees onscreen. The ethics of this choice were reflected in the film's plot, a feature-length animal liberation fantasy—which is especially telling when compared with the 1968 original, in which the apes were decidedly the villains.

Presented by

Noah Gittell has covered film and politics for The AtlanticSalon, and RogerEbert.com. He writes regularly at ReelChange.net.

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