Hollywood's Horrifying Relationship With Animals

Hollywood's Horrifying Relationship With Animals

Posted by Leanne Sturrock on 14th Aug 2017

Hollywood: the dazzling gem in California’s crown, and home to arguably the biggest film industry in the world. Glorified across the globe, the word ‘Hollywood’ is synonymous with stardom, encapsulating wealth, admiration, and further pillars of success.

But underneath the glitz, glam and razzle-dazzle, Hollywood harbours many dark secrets. Controversy has swirled in recent years due to isues such as the gender pay-gap, a lack of opportunity for people of colour, and countless on-set scandals (notably, pertaining to inappropriate relationships.) But while these major issues are well-publicised (and rightly so), further filth can be found if you scratch away at the industry’s glistening exterior. There are cast members who have been unable to speak up against mistreatment and, as such, their plight has been largely overlooked.

For decades, animals in Hollywood have suffered severe examples of mistreatment, from their unwanted roles in movies and television shows, to being used as little more than props for actors and pop-starlets alike. As the world rages against the exploitation of animals in circuses or the illegal pet trade, it is often thought that the creatures set for the big screen are in safe hands – at least, that is the assumption for modern-day filmmaking. Gone are the days of bare-faced abuse, seen in films such as ‘Electrocuting an Elephant' (during which an elephant named Topsy was publicly executed at Coney Island) – such blatant mistreatment of an animal would make even the strongest stomach churn. Rather, we exist in a time of impressive CGI graphics, where entire feature-length sagas can feature primates seamlessly played by humans (the Planet of the Apes franchise.) Hollywood has come so incredibly far in terms of its capabilities to create mind-blowing cinematic experiences without the use of animals…so, why is it that some blockbusters still feature big cats, baboons and so forth?

2016’s remake of the beloved Disney classic, The Jungle Book, was met with rapturous acclaim upon its release, with notable critics praising Jon Favreau’s impeccable ability to create hyper-realistic interactions between animal and ‘man-cub’ throughout the film. Behind-the-scenes footage exists of the director, clad in specialised motion-capture gear, acting out scenes as ‘Balu’ alongside the star of the movie (Neel Sethi, ‘Mowgli.’) So fantastic were these graphics, that the film went on to win 12 awards throughout awards season. Not a single animal was used in production; rather, key-frame computer animation was used to replicate footage of real animal movement. Yet despite the success of The Jungle Book, Favreau and his team had inadvertently cast controversy onto another animal epic: 2012’s Life Of Pi.

Like The Jungle Book, Life of Pi tells the story of young boy and his unorthodox animal companion, a Bengal tiger known as Richard Parker. The film was a critical and commercial success, earning more Academy Awards than any other film from 2012 and high praise for its visual effects. But while The Jungle Book and Life of Pi have much in common, one major thing does set them apart: the latter film faced severe allegations of animal abuse.

In a series of leaked emails courtesy of the Hollywood Reporter, it quickly became apparent that mistreatment was rife on the set of the film, despite an on-set presence of the American Humane Association (and a subsequent certification to state that ‘No Animals Were Harmed.’) An excerpt from an email sent by an AHA monitor, Gina Johnson, describes how a Bengal tiger had apparently almost died on set, with Johnson pointing out how the animal ‘damn near drowned.’ She explicitly mentioned how King, the tiger, was ‘almost f--- killed', and pleaded with the recipient of the email not to pass on any further information, stating she had ‘downplayed the f---’ out of the situation when dealing with it personally. The leak, alongside footage of animal trainer Michael Hackenberger persistently whipping and verbally abusing a young tiger, was damming for the AHA. Charges were made against Hackenberger, and Johnson subsequently resigned from her position.

It is hardly a complicated affair, digging up dirt on the AHA, though many cinema-goers are passive to the implications of the ‘no animals harmed’ tagline that so often appears in the opening/closing credits of films. By definition, the AHA commits to ensure the safety, welfare and wellbeing of animals. That said, regulations stipulate that the organisation need only to protect the animals when the cameras are rolling, and that ‘accidental’ harm cannot necessarily be punished. This means that any abuse that happens during a production, intentional or not, goes largely ignored outside of shooting.

Unluckily for the AHA, instances of abuse are frequently being caught. This is, in part, a sign of the times: in today’s world, almost all our actions are documented, whether we intend them to be or not. Similarly, it is remarkably easy for our ugliest moments to become public – all it takes is for somebody to press a button, and evidence of our misdeeds becomes starkly apparent. A recent example of the AHA’s failings came during filming of A Dog’s Purpose: here, an undisclosed individual on the production captured the moment where a dog was being forcefully pushed into rough waters. Despite the dog’s evident distress, the onsite representative for the AHA failed to step in. The video lasted just shy of one minute.

Since the release of the footage, the AHA have fiercely denied any allegations of on-set abuse, insisting that the context of the video had been fixed to ‘deliberately mislead the public.’ However, director Lasse Hallström (who the AHA claimed had been on set at the time), has revoked any responsibility, declaring an absence from the set and admitting that the footage had left him feeling ‘very disturbed.’ The film’s release was consequently put on hold, and the on-set representative for the AHA was suspended from their role.

The American Humane Association are becoming increasingly well-known for their shirking of responsibilities: the organisation separated itself from 27 instances of death during filming of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; a husky was punched repeatedly on the set of Disney’s Eight Below; and a 5-foot long shark died after being placed in a small, inflatable pool during an AHA-attended commercial shoot. Despite consistent failures to protect the animals, the AHA remain the only ‘authority’ for animal safety in Hollywood, and continually find loopholes which allow them to evade accountability.

But violence isn’t Hollywood’s only problem. All too often, exotic species are used in films, television and live performances. Regardless of whether or not they become maimed on-set, the level of stress these creatures go through is surely insurmountable: in addition to (likely) being stripped away from their parents at a young age, many animal ‘actors’ undergo difficult training sessions, often being placed into situations entirely foreign to their own nature. Especially in the case of chimpanzees and other ‘wild’/exotic animals, the level of humanisation can be incredibly distressing, as well as perpetuating an idea to the audience that this kind of interactivity is normal or even amusing.

Troublingly, some instances of animal abuse are even deemed to be iconic. Take, for example, Britney Spears’ performance at the 2001 VMAs: during her performance of ‘I’m A Slave 4 U,’ Spears appeared on stage with a number of exotic animals, including white tigers (kept in cages, alongside dancers, elevated at the side of the stage.) Midway through the performance, a backing dancer approached Spears, draping an albino Burmese python around the singer’s neck. It is this moment which earnt the performance fame, as well as long-lasting notoriety.

Spears herself has looked back on the performance over the years, even tweeting about the animal and asking if anybody knew of its whereabouts (the animal still resides with its handler, a gent named Mike Hano.) Jovial as the whole situation may seem, it is still part of a wider problem: the popularisation of animals as both props and pets. Martine Colette, the founder of Wildlife Waystation (a reptile sanctuary), has voiced her concerns regarding the use of snakes in Hollywood. ‘Anytime somebody of Britney's stature brings something to the forefront, they immediately start some sort of a culture — people are going to want one,’ Colette told MTV. ‘One of the reasons why I don't like that kind of thing is that it makes people go out and get animals that they would not normally have gotten without knowing anything about those animals. That's why we get as many of those snakes as we get [at our animal sanctuary].’

The influence that celebrities have on their fans is something that The Great Projects have condemned in the past (see: our blogs on the exotic pet trade, as well as this one debating the impact celebrities have on our own stance on animal welfare); additionally, it seems as if many celebrities are more concerned with one-upping each other when it comes to outrageous animal antics. Whether it’s being seen with the most unusual animal (Justin Bieber and his many exotic ‘pets’; Josephine Baker and Chiquita the Cheetah), or to overcompensate for a bruised ego (Mike Tyson famously bought Bengal tigers after a stint in jail – he wanted to look ‘cool,’ apparently), celebrities seldom have the best interests of these animals at heart; rather, their relationships with these animals are borne entirely out of arrogance…and as such, the insecure Instagram-generation of today tend to try and replicate these shenanigans.

The above, once combined with Hollywood’s overall abuse of our animal friends, makes for quite the problematic cocktail. Something simply must be done to put a stop to this toxic exploitation, and it is only when audiences take a stand, that change will come.


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