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Animal Stories in Film: Inherently Exploitative? Potentially Eye-Opening?

By Jasmin Singer — December 19, 2011

I’m never quite sure what to do with big, glittery, animal-centric movies. You know the ones: Those red carpet-worthy Hollywood films boasting stars like Drew Barrymore and Ted Danson that tout feel-good messages like “Save the Whales!” On one hand, they are (frequently) bringing positively-framed animal-themed messages to the masses with a budget and bandwidth that animal rights activists can only dream of. There’s often the potential of opening people’s eyes to various aspects of animal exploitation and suffering that perhaps the movie-goer never before considered, like vivisection (think: The Rise of the Planet of the Apes — and don’t miss our analysis of that film).

But despite the good intentions, there’s almost always the dark underbelly associated with making any film that centers around animals — the inherent exploitation therein. So, while I love to see people being informed about, say, the indescribably cruel treatment of circus animals, don’t even get me started on the horrific irony of taking a book that is so right on in terms of its messaging — I’m talking about Water for Elephants, which I loved reading — and turning it into a huge, massive exploitation festival, Hollywood-style.

Unless you’re going to put dogs in a film and not direct them — like the brilliant filmmakers behind Bold Native did when they filmed around where the dogs walked and what the dogs did (they used their own dogs, by the way) — you can basically bet your tofu dinner that the animal actors in that big Hollywood movie are being misused, and that their natural needs are being put second to the producers’ unnatural ones.

While it’s probably true that not all animal handlers involved in Hollywood films, or all productions using animal actors, are equal, the way I see it, there is basically no way around the exploitation. And, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, for those of us who care about ending animal cruelty, the American Humane Association’s stamp of approval (“There were no animals harmed during the making of this film”) is about as reliable as a meat-eater tossing around labels like “humane certified” and “free-range,” and thinking that means that there’s nothing more to worry about.

Still, though… There is something to be said about the huge mainstream movie-going audience sitting in front of their favorite stars and learning that animals have feelings, too. So, although in my ideal world I don’t want any animals to appear on the big screen, when they do, I want to believe in the message that the film is trying to convey. I suppose it’s the lesser of two evils, and I think that the potential reward — the possibility of awakening someone to animal issues — can have profoundly positive implications.

Take yet another upcoming animal-themed Hollywood film, Big Miracle, starring — yup — Drew Barrymore, as a passionate, whale-loving activist who is trying her darnedest to save three trapped gray whales. Big Miracle is based on Operation Breakthrough, an international effort in 1988 to free several trapped whales from ice in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. Set to be released in early February, this film has been reportedly made “ethically,” according to The Humane Society of the United States. I don’t have more specifics than that on the treatment of the whales used in the film, and, while that does ease my concerns more than an American Humane Association sign-off would, I doubt I will be paying money to see this movie. My bottom line is that whales were used, period.

Or take War Horse, which I can without question say was the best Broadway play I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen hundreds). We discussed the power of this theatrical production on our podcast a few months ago. It was one of those pieces of art that changed our lives, that touched us in ways that are almost beyond description. The Lincoln Center production of War Horse — which, happily, uses puppets in extraordinary, expressive ways instead of actual animals — was not only a powerful social justice story about an animal who prevailed against all odds, but was proof positive that you don’t have to exploit animals in order to effectively tell their story. (Another recent example of the ability of artistry to portray animals authentically without exploiting them is, of course, the use of computer generated apes in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes.)

But now, the film version of War Horse — a Spielberg production — is about to be released, and this powerful story will be told using real horses. The trailer makes Mariann weep copiously. Still, despite our deep love for this story, we won’t be seeing War Horse. Our podcast’s Hollywood correspondent, the brilliant Ari Solomon, was given free tickets to a screening of the film, and will give us his take on this movie — as well as his thoughts on the use of animals in film — on this Saturday’s 102nd podcast episode. So don’t miss that.

This is not all cut and dried. I do see the other point of view. I get that you might want to take your kid to see Big Miracle or War Horse, and that, as a result, she might gain understanding that these precious beings are indeed sentient and deserve to live free of exploitation and suffering. And, indeed, it’s undeniable that the role that animals have played in film has, in many ways, helped to shape our attitudes for the better. As eloquently discussed by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau — whose recent talk, Animals in the Arts, was both fascinating and thought-provoking — viewing our relationships with animals through the lens of a filmmaker, or the brushstroke of a painter, can inform and inspire our views in powerful ways. We can watch old movies like The Misfits and Lassie Come Home, and from those, we can grow.

But as our culture, and our technology, have evolved to understand that it is possible to share positive stories of animals — minus the demoralization — at what point do we as a society move on from animal exploitation? And at what point does Hollywood catch on?

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(12) Readers Comments

  1. December 19, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    The whales used in "Big Miracle" appear to be baleen whales, which are not kept in captivity the way toothed whales suchs as orcas are. Therefore, it couldn't be a Sea World situation with captive trained whales. The whales used in the film would have to be a combination of film of wild whales, animatronics, and CGI--it simply couldn't be made otherwise with this species.Also, does anyone else find it kind of ironic that Barrymore is starring as a wildlife activist, when she has publicly forsworn her former vegan diet and now models fur coats.

    • December 19, 2011 at 3:46 pm

      That's really good information to have. Thanks for the additional info. Very helpful. And yeah, that is indeed sadly ironic about Barrymore...

  2. December 19, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    This is a great piece and an extremely important conversation to have. Looking forward to this weekend's podcast where we discuss this regarding War Horse. Thanks for communicating this point of view so clearly and rationally, Jasmin.

  3. December 19, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    Thanks for such a great post. I've always subconsciously wrestled with this, and it's very helpful to have different points of view outlined here. Helps me clarify my own thoughts! :)

  4. December 20, 2011 at 2:41 pm

    Agreed - I sometimes hear the same argument about zoos. e.g. - the captive animals at the zoo are ambassadors and children (and adults) care more about animals they can see and "connect" with than animals they only ever see on film. And I remember the zoo nurturing my love for animals when I was little and didn't know any better (my mother was always careful to use all of the signage as an education experience).And while it's true that I ended up vegan for the past 16 years, that's an exception if you look at all zoo-goers. (Not to imply that going vegan is the only way helping animals manifests, but you get the gist of what I'm saying.)But it's a catch 22 - if these vehicles were as effective as we'd hope, they wouldn't exist.

  5. February 24, 2012 at 10:19 am

    Peace is right about the images of whales in "Big Miracle." I saw the film with my daughter, and I think it's a good flick for vegan kids. Here's my review -

  6. April 1, 2013 at 9:31 pm

    Hello,I recently got involved in making myself and others aware of animal abuse in society. I call and email politicians and organizations to help fight this issue. After watching Water for Elephants and crying my eyes out like a child who lost their mother I went online and got a double whammy when I came upon SO MANY videos of real life elephant abuse to these innocent and beautiful creatures. :'( It was absolutely horrifying. I couldn't sleep and felt so helpless and what to do. And even worse I was reading Horror stories about zoo's which I thought were 'safe.' Circuses are the absolute worst but if you look up animal abuse in US zoos you will stumble upon a lot. And many zoos have to pay a fine but nothing changes. It hurts my heart and I wish I could change it all. The movie Dumbo (I haven't seen in over 20 yrs) seems to touch on this sad topic. It is so hypocritical that a movie like water for elephants which send a message home about treating animals right, in real life is the OPPOSITE! I really wish I could call Reese Witherspoon and ask her how she feels now, and what will she do about it??/ She has enough money, she should build a huge elephant sanctuary (there are 2 in the country). They are the only places, except in the wild where they can live peacefully without ANY human interaction! Sorry for this longggggg post.... but I figured I'd find comfort here with you who feel the same.~Laura

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