I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes on Martin Luther King Day. The underlying message about equality and justice for all beings seemed fitting, and the computer-generated apes were so realistic—and even humanlike—that I could really relate to them. The blockbuster hit—unlike Zookeeper, We Bought a Zoo, and other movies that feature animal “actors” who are rented from wild-animal training facilities—reminds viewers that animals are not here for research or entertainment purposes.
Animal “actors” are usually ripped away from their families when they’re just babies. They’re generally physically and psychologically abused. Many are beaten or jolted with electric-shock devices during pre-production training. They often aren’t given enough food or space to move around. The trainers try to intimidate the animals so that they won’t lash out against their captors, as the “apes” in Rise of the Planet of the Apes eventually did.
Thankfully, the outcry against the exploitation of animals for film, television, and advertisements is growing. A recent Time magazine article, “Why Wild Animals and Hollywood Don’t Mix,” reminds its readers that wild animals are not meant to perform—or even safely coexist—in captivity with humans and that they must be coerced into doing so. Julia Gallucci, a primatologist with PETA, cautions, “When you deal with tigers and elephants and chimps, these are animals who are dangerous, and their instinctive behavior can cause them to maim or kill human beings. It’s who they are.”
While people have been harmed—and even killed—by animal “actors,” it’s really the animals who suffer the most. The American Humane Association (AHA) disclaimer that “no animals were harmed during the making of this movie” does not actually guarantee that animals were not harmed. The AHA disclaimer doesn’t cover the off-site training of animals—where most of the abuse occurs—or take into account animals’ living and transport conditions.
A whistleblower who worked on the set of Speed Racer reported that he witnessed a young chimpanzee who was beaten behind the scenes, and trainers were caught on tape hitting the elephant used in Water for Elephants with bullhooks—sharp devices that resemble fireplace pokers.
Animals have been hurt and killed, even when AHA representatives are on the set, as was the case when two horses died during the filming of Flicka. Last year, a giraffe died during production of Zookeeper, a movie that also features an elephant who was provided by Have Trunk Will Travel, the “elephant rental” company whose trainers have been filmed abusing elephants with bullhooks and electric prods.
Even the animal “actors” who aren’t gratuitously abused don’t get to retire to Easy Street. When they get too old or too strong to be bullied, they are often shipped to decrepit roadside zoos or backyard menageries owned by people who have little to no experience caring for wild animals. (Matt Damon’s character in We Bought a Zoo actually claims, “You don’t even need any special knowledge to run a zoo.“)
Of course, there’s no need to worry about the computer-generated animals in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and other recent films. They were simply “turned off,” no harm done. So the next time you want to catch a flick about animals, catch one that features computer-generated animals. And be sure to give the real stars—the visual-effects team—two thumbs up.