Conservation Controversy: How Does Celebrity Culture Influence Our Own Stance On Animal Welfare?

Conservation Controversy: How Does Celebrity Culture Influence Our Own Stance On Animal Welfare?

Posted by Leanne Sturrock on 30th Sep 2016

When living life in the spotlight, it should be no surprise to celebrities that their career enables them to have certain a amount of influence on those around them - whether intentional or not. With every move monitored and their choices often under harsh scrutiny, there are surely times in which celebrities might slip up and do something that is deemed unfavourable to the public eye. But all of that said, there must also be times in which their management should know when to step in prevent controversy or, you know, perhaps human nature should get in the way of terrible choices being made.

Here at The Great Projects, we strive to inform our readers and volunteers about the do’s and don’ts of handling animals. Perhaps our organisation has opened your eyes to illegal pet trade, or to the hardships many species face on a daily basis at the hands of human beings (think deforestation, hunting etc.) It is entirely understood that there is always work to be done, and lessons to be learnt, but if you’ve read this far then chances are you’re also somebody who cares a great deal about the well-being of animals, aiming to make a difference by way of careful and ethical choices being made daily. So why is it that these celebrities, with their plethora of ‘people’ around them at any given time, still manage to make such dreadful choices that so greatly affect the animal kingdom? Join us as we take a look at some particular celebrity cases in which animals have been used as props and accessories, or kept as illegal/unorthodox pets.

Exotic Ownership

Michael Jackson and Bubbles statue

A statue depicting the late singer Michael Jackson, and his controversial pet chimpanzee, Bubbles.

Which celebrities come to mind when you think about ‘exotic ownership?’ Chances are, your mind will jump straight to Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee, Bubbles. Or maybe Mike Tyson is the first to spring to mind, what with his menagerie of big cats? Putting it bluntly, there are plenty of famous personalities out there who have, at some point, been in possession of some questionable ‘pets.’ And it’s behaviours like these which no doubt encourage copy-cat behaviour – it's entirely feasible that Michael Jackson's ownership of Bubbles may well have influenced a younger pop star, Justin Bieber, to purchase a monkey of his own. And with Bieber’s legion of fans also being really quite impressionable, here begins the issue of celebrity power and the impact of choices made. Many people will have seen Bieber posing with his monkey, Mally – blissfully unaware, of course, of the fact that Mally was owned without a license and, most likely, will have been captured/traded illegally. The issues don’t stop there, though, with Mally persistently being flown from country to country without quarantine...which ultimately puts both destination and species alike at severe risk of contamination. Add to that the fact that Bieber has been seen posing with a hired tiger at his father's birthday party, and his negative attitude towards animal welfare becomes all the more apparent. All of these behaviours should absolutely be have been nipped in the bud from the very beginning, but the tragedy of celebrity influence is that the famous faces in the centre of such scandals, are surrounded by ‘yes men’ – people who’ll allow these eccentric millionaires to do (and get) whatever they want, for the sake of keeping them sweet. And, of course, any press is good press…has controversy ever really harmed the Biebers of this world?

Conversely, there are celebrities that have made conscious choices in their own lives that could well go on to influence their fanbase, similarly impacting welfare and conservation efforts for the better. Actress Kristen Bell has been a vegetarian since the age of 11 years old (and is currently a fully-fledged vegan): with animal welfare being so very close to her heart, it’s no surprise that throughout her time in the spotlight, she’s also found time to support the San Diego-based Helen Woodward Animal Centre. Another talented thespian, Ian Somerhalder, also works towards the greater-good of the animal kingdom (when he’s not busy with his day-job as an actor, that is): all of his personal pets are adopted rescues, and he’s also responsible for founding the Ian Somerhalder Foundation: a green organisation which aims to promote conservation, end animal extinction, and to heal the planet. These are just a few of the foundation’s goals…y’know, just to get the ball rolling on this whole conservation thing. One thing to note, though, could be the fact that the Michael Jacksons, Mike Tysons and Justin Biebers of this world are notorious for such out-there antics. And as such, this wild behaviour is more likely to make the news and cause an impact on impressionable fanbases. If the media were to spend more time focusing on celebrities such as Somerhalder and Bell, perhaps we’d see better attitudes develop across society as a whole.

Animal Accessories

Dita Von Teese in fur

Marilyn Manson and Dita Von Teese, the latter seen wearing a fur shawl.

Aside from the obvious possession of exotic pets, another animal issue regularly rearing its ugly head is the use of furs in fashion, or other such materials derived from innocent creatures. Some of the world’s biggest celebrities, such as Beyonce, Rihanna and Dita Von Teese (to name but a few), are frequently photographed wearing articles of clothing that no doubt would have resulted in the slaughter of potentially hundreds of animals during manufacture. And while it does not go to say that any of these celebrities are inherently bad people (Beyonce, for example, is often hailed for doing much to aid charity causes, and Rihanna too supports a huge plethora of fantastic causes), you do have to wonder why this admirable level of compassion does not extend to some of our planet’s most helpless animals. To focus on Rihanna for just a few minutes more: the otherwise charitable chanteuse is persistently papped wearing unethical articles of clothing. From snake-skin boots to fox-fur wraps, you have to wonder how much the pop starlet truly knows about animal cruelty…though you’d expect her to know at least a little about it, since she’s specifically elected to use faux fur in a partnership project with fashion giants Nordstrom and Puma (see: her ‘leadcat fenty slide sandal’ collaboration with the brands.) So why is it that celebrities of this caliber shamelessly opt to dress in clothing made out of deceased animals, but will push more ethical ways of life on more obvious public platforms (see: Beyonce’s ‘breaking’ announcement about her vegan diet, broadcast on one of America’s peak talk shows)? Is it because their pockets being lined by selling universally-friendly products, enables them to lead opulent lifestyle at the mere cost of animal lives? Is personal image really more important that the ethics one projects to impressionable minds?

On the contrary, there are options to emulate the look of your favourite celebrities without causing harm to any living creature (I know: groundbreaking.) Take, for example, cinema’s sweetheart Angelina Jolie. During shooting for the film ‘Salt’, some people were quick to point out the usually-considerate actress’ wardrobe seemed to come with an apparent addition of fur – chinchilla, specifically. Or should that be ‘syn’chilla? As it turns out, the ever-glamourous Jolie had retained her ethical standpoint all along, by wearing a cape-and-hat combo trimmed only with synthetic fur. So realistic was this ‘fur’, that it proves there’s always the option to go faux. And in light of this, surely it’s time that fashion designers and their muses begin to make a real effort to stamp out the use of animal materials altogether? To be more like Jolie, why not take a leaf out of not only her book, but out of the portfolios belonging to Stella McCartney, Betsey Johnson and most recently, Vivienne Westwood – not one of these famous designers use fur in their designs, with the haus of McCartney itself being built on a fiercely vegan ethos.

The Power Of One Voice

Monkey in cage

We’ve already discussed the use of animal products in fashion, and we'll always unabashedly be against the use of exotic animals as pets. But when it comes to the power of influence, there are few voices louder than those coming out of already-famous faces - it sounds ridiculous, but we as humans are incredibly fickle beings, moving with trends just as quickly as micro-influencers can write a tweet, or magazines can print articles about who/what is hot or not that week. So when somebody in an admirable or powerful position decides to pipe up with their thoughts on any one cause, you best believe that there’ll be thousands – even millions – of people willing to lap those opinions up. And as such, it becomes the responsibility of celebrities to make worthwhile choices that will no doubt be noticed by their fans: we’re not talking about putting filters in place to prevent celebrities being human beings with thoughts and opinions of their own, but when it comes to matters that really do have a knock-on effect to our world, you’d hope that most celebrities would own the duty of doing the right thing. That means standing up for groups of individuals that might not be powerful on their own or, in the case of animal conservation, lending a voice to creatures not gifted with a voice of their own. We all know how the outrage towards stories of animals being shot or hunted can become beasts of their own, but less light tends to be cast on the very possession of animals – whether as pets, or as skins adorning our own backs. Overt violence is always deemed as despicable, but in that case, isn’t forcing an animal from its natural habitat and expecting it to live a human life just as cruel, too? (See: Josephine Baker and her leopard Chiquita, often seen undertaking human activities alongside the actress.) If we can get mad at trophy-hunters shooting lions, can we not express anger towards those individuals willing to wear fur as a token of extravagance? As individuals, we must be loud enough to start making change. And when those on such high platforms (i.e celebrities) begin to recognise the wrong-doings of their industry, perhaps they too could be encouraged to use their position to shout down animal abuse. Making a change always starts with one voice, but together we can have our message heard, eventually putting an end to the plight of earth’s most endangered animals.


What are you opinions on celebrity influence? Should our idols be held responsible for their actions, or do we put too much weight on celebrity's individual choices? Let us know where you stand on the debate!


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Lisa commented 6 years ago
Great article Leanne! So very true - I wish people in the public eye would educate themselves instead of blindly following their handlers. Way too many photos of wild animal selfies and fur wearing idiots on social media. We all have a choice and I wish more celebrity's would be more proactive about animal welfare.

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