Animals Used in Films and TV Shows:
Issues and Regulations

January 13, 2022Zihao Yu

Introduction

Animal actors used in films and TV shows are one type of animals used in entertainment. Compared with animals in zoos, aquariums, circuses, the welfare of the animal actors is not well protected by laws. These animal actors receive less care behind the scene. This article discusses the details of animals used in films and TV shows.


Welfare issues

Animals used in films and TV shows usually suffer from cruel training and treatment without proper care for their health and animal welfare. They are treated as tools in the film industry from the beginning of their lives until they are retired or abandoned. In order to reduce the cost, the moviemakers usually take shorter time and cruel training to make the animals achieve certain tasks. Many animals die or injure during the process of filming if there is no veterinary care or assistance on site. When the animals are off-screen, their living condition is not protected properly. The animals are got in many ways. Some wildlife animals are captured from the wild or from zoos and aquariums. Others are bought from commercial breeders or private companies.


Animals abused in films

In November 2021, one team of Chinese drama Marvellous Women has been accused of killing a cat for a scene. In that scene, the cat was seen falling off the table and licking blood from its mouth after being “poisoned”. The audience of the show thought it was too realistic to be faked that it was impossible for the team to teach the cat to act that way unless the cat was really dying. Many netizens then went online to ask questions and demand an explanation from the team. The crew responded that they had used fake blood and that they tied a wire to the cat’s leg and then show a video of visiting the cat owner, but these did not convince the netizens. An anonymous netizen claimed that the crew used electric shocks to stimulate those reflexes and buried the cat on the same day.


In the past, there are popular films that faced allegations of abusing animals, such as "Stagecoach" (1939), "Ben-Hur" (1959), "Heaven's Gate" (1980), "First Blood" (1982), "The Adventures of Milo and Otis" (1986), "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003), "Flicka" (2006), "Speed Racer" (2008), "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (2012), "Life of Pi" (2012), and “A Dog's Purpose” (2017).

"Life of Pi" by GBPublic_PR is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“No Animals Were Harmed”® by American Humane Association

American Humane is an association founded in 1877, which committed to ensuring the safety, welfare, and well-being of animals. It “monitors animals in filmed media and holds the exclusive right to award its “No Animals Were Harmed”® end-credit certification to productions that meet its rigorous standard of care for animal actors.” 70 percent of known animal action in film and television productions are monitored by American Humane Association.


American Humane Association provides Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media. The document includes Basic Principles, General Guidelines, Veterinary Care Guidelines, and Guidelines for Production, Cast, and Crew, as well as the Species-Specific Guidelines. The Guidelines “prescribe a high standard of care that the film and television production industries have voluntarily agreed to provide to animal performers,” and the standard “is more comprehensive and more compassionate than any state’s anti-cruelty laws.” According to the definition, animal refers to “any sentient creature, including birds, fish, reptiles, and insects.” In the end, the Species-Specific Guidelines cover dogs, domestic cats, birds, fish, insects and arachnids, horses (equines) and livestock, exotic/captive wildlife, primates, reptiles, amphibians, and wildlife.


However, currently, there is neither federal law nor states law which directly specifically governs the use of animals in films and TV in the United States. The federal Animal Welfare Act and Endangered Species Act, as well as the anti-cruelty law at the states level, can apply to some of the animals indirectly.


Read more: Overview of Laws Concerning Animals in Film Media


Some news outlets in recent years have pointed to incidents of death and injury to animals associated with films that feature the “No animals were harmed” label. American Humane Association is criticized by PETA that “they do not look after the animals’ living conditions offset or monitor animal treatment during pre-production and training” and “they don’t reveal anything about how the animals were trained or the conditions in which they live.”

"Custom Trailer for American Humane Association Red Star Rescue" by Trailers of the East Coast is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Australian law

Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals in Films and Theatrical Performances has existed since 1990 and has now been revised under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979, which establishes clear guidelines for the use of animals in the film and television industry, corporate and educational productions, stage performances, and commercial photography for advertising or promotion. The Code is attached to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Regulation 2012. Use of animals in films and theatrical performances (1) A person must not use an animal in connection with the production of a film or theatrical performance or cause or permit an animal to be used in connection with the production of a film or theatrical performance, otherwise than in accordance with the relevant Code of Practice. (Article 39)


This Code applies to all animals used in the production of films (including television), in theatrical performances, and in still photographs for advertising or promotion. (Article 1.1 Code of Practice) This Code aims to prevent cruelty to and ensure the safe, considerate, humane treatment of animals so used. (Article 1.2 Code of Practice) This Code provides the general principles in Article 2:

  • The staging of any act that intentionally endangers, kills, injures, or abuses an animal is not permitted.

  • Ultimate responsibility for ensuring the welfare of the animals and compliance with this Code rests with the Producer or the Producer’s authorized agent, whether such person is on the set or not.

  • Animals must only be trained, handled, and managed by competent people, with due consideration for the welfare of the animals.

  • Film-making and theatrical techniques must be considered for their impact on the welfare of animals.

  • Whatever the requirements of the script, all people responsible for the management of animals used on sets must consider the welfare of animals under their control.

  • Arrangements must be made for the provision of veterinary attention for animals.

  • Only well-trained animals should be used in stunts or special effects.

  • Producers must ensure that the welfare of animals is always given priority over continuing filming or performing.

  • No animal is to be killed for the purposes of film-making or theatrical production.


The Code provides the rules for animal abuse, animal welfare, training, rights of competent animal handlers, trainers or veterinarians, responsibility, immediate veterinary assistance, and the ultimate responsibility.

Read more: Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals in Films and Theatrical Performances

A Chinese television show had to release a behind-the-scenes video explaining how the team had made the cat’s death look realistic. Photo: Marvelous Women

Conclusion

Animals are not tools for making money for human beings by nature. They should be respected as sentient and living beings with their welfare and rights. With the development of technology, more and more animal scenes can be done by movie effects and artificial synthesis. The National Humane Education Society suggests several ways to avoid animal cruelty media:

  • Avoid television shows and films that feature exotic animal performers;

  • If you have children, make sure they understand that animals depicted in movies and television are different than they are in real life;

  • Learn about the lives and histories of animal actors before purchasing movies and television shows; and

  • Contact filmmakers and production companies and let them know that as a viewer, you care about the welfare of animals in the film.

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