Skip to Main Content

Animal Actors

There is nothing glamorous about showbiz for primates, big cats, bears, and other animals who are used in television, film, or advertising; exploited as sports mascots; or used as props in novelty displays. Torn away from their mothers as infants, these animals are subjected to abusive training methods and forced to spend most of their lives in small, filthy cages, deprived of everything that is natural and important to them. Trainers who supply animals to the entertainment industry are frequently cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for violating the federal Animal Welfare Act, which establishes only minimal guidelines for animal care. Social animals such as primates, elephants, and wolves are often forced to live alone, causing them severe psychological stress and anxiety.

Unlike humans, no ape ever dreams of being a star on the big screen. To them, “performing” is stressful, confusing, and often torturous.

Chimpanzees and orangutans used in entertainment are typically torn away from their mothers shortly after birth—a horribly cruel process that causes irreversible psychological harm to the baby and the mother. In order to force young apes to perform on cue, trainers often beat the animals with fists, clubs, or even broom handles. Systematic abuse causes the animals to be constantly anxious and fearful—always anticipating the next blow. In fact, the chimpanzee “grin” so often seen in movies and on television is actually a grimace of fear.

When apes become too large and strong to handle (usually at around age 8), they are often dumped at shoddy roadside zoos and other substandard facilities, where they may spend decades in small, barren cages—often in solitary confinement. Chimpanzees can live into their 60s, and orangutans can live into their 50s, so “retirement” from entertainment often means a long life of misery for these highly intelligent and sensitive animals.

The American Humane Association’s (AHA) “No Animals Were Harmed” seal of approval is extremely misleading to filmmakers and audiences alike.  AHA does not monitor living conditions of animals off set, during pre-production training, or during the premature separation of infants from their mothers. The organization, which is funded by the Screen Actors Guild—the very industry that it is monitoring—rarely, if ever, files formal complaints when animals are mistreated. In fact, AHA actively defends the use of great apes in film and television productions despite expert testimony indicating that great apes cannot be trained for entertainment without subjecting them to physical abuse.

With all the highly advanced technologies that are available today—including animatronics, animation, computer-generated imagery, and more—there is no reason for subjecting apes to a lifetime of misery as “actors.” After learning about the cruelty that these animals are subjected to behind the scenes, numerous companies and advertising agencies have pledged never to use great apes in their productions.

Animals as Mascots

Big cats, bears, and other live-animal mascots don’t belong at athletic events. The bright lights, loud noises, and screaming fans are terrifying to animals, who don’t understand what is happening and can easily become defensive and aggressive.

In their natural environments, tigers and lions would quietly roam many miles of territory, hunt, and raise their young. Bears would climb and debark trees, forage on berries, dig through vegetation, build dens, capture small animals or insects, and fish in streams. Animals who are kept as mascots—such as Mike the Tiger at Louisiana State University, the bears at Baylor University, the tiger named TOM III at the University of Memphis, the lions named Leo III and Una at the University of North Alabama, and the many tiger cubs who have been used by Massillon High School in Ohio—aren’t allowed to do any of the things that are natural and important to them.

No amount of training can stop a wild animal from behaving instinctively, and trainers cannot protect themselves or the public from an angry or terrified animal’s claws, teeth, and sheer strength when he or she rebels against the trainer’s dominance. Injury and death are dangers for handlers and spectators who place themselves in a wild animal’s path. For more information, see PETA’s factsheets on big cat attacks and bear attacks. There’s no reason to subject animals to the chaos and stress of sporting events. Costumed human mascots can lead cheers, react to the crowd, and pump up the team—all things that a frightened animal cannot do. Most universities use costumed human mascots.

The human mascot for the NFL’s New England Patriots stated, “The position of a team mascot is rewarding, exciting, fun, interesting, and can essentially lead to even bigger and better opportunities. … Though [these are] wonderful opportunities to humans, animals do not enjoy any of those benefits.” He added, “While live animals must be tucked away in a corner of a stadium and are rarely seen during the game, a human mascot in costume can be visible, active, and instrumental during the entire event.”

Novelty Displays

In an attempt to attract customers, some stores, hotels, restaurants, bars, and other establishments imprison wild animals.

The Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas confines dolphins to concrete tanks and keeps lions, tigers, and leopards behind glass walls for tourists to gawk at. A chimpanzee named Candy has spent decades alone at an amusement park in Louisiana. Sharks, stingrays, and other aquatic animals are trapped in a tank beneath a dance floor at QUA Bottle Lounge in Austin, Texas. A gas station in Louisiana called the Tiger Truck Stop keeps a tiger in a barren concrete cage. Ivan, a gorilla captured in Africa as an infant in 1964, languished for 26 years in a concrete and Plexiglas cage as a department store attraction in Washington state before being rescued.

These animals lead miserable lives as curiosity displays and are often dependent on caretakers who have little knowledge of their highly specialized and complex needs. Not surprisingly, many of them become sick, depressed, and neurotic.

Nativity Scenes

Animals used in Nativity displays are magnets for abuse. For example, Brighty, a donkey used in a church Nativity scene in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was savagely beaten by three young men. Following the attack, Brighty was fearful of people and refused to socialize with other donkeys.

In Richmond, Virginia, an attack by dogs on animals used in a church Nativity scene resulted in the deaths of three animals. A camel named Ernie who escaped from a Nativity scene was struck by a car and killed in Maryland. In yet another Nativity tragedy, a sheep in Bedford, New Hampshire, was stolen and slaughtered.

Highly intelligent, sensitive animals deserve better than to be treated as if they were props for our amusement. Please avoid attractions that exhibit live wild animals. If you see a film, television show, or advertisement that exploits great apes or other wild animals, contact the producers and tell them why you object.