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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 Nativity 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’s 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.

Anguished Apes

Chimpanzees and orangutans used in entertainment are typically taken from their mothers shortly after birth—leaving both mother and baby with lifelong emotional scars. In order to force young apes to perform on cue, physical and psychological abuse are common. An observer who spent 13 months at an ape-training facility witnessed beatings of chimpanzees on a regular basis during training. Dr. Jane Goodall points out that the chimpanzee “grin” so often seen in movies and on television is actually a grimace of fear. Trainers use fear-based training methods in order to condition apes to exhibit the expression on cue.

When apes become too large and strong to handle (usually between 6 and 8 years old), they may be dumped at shoddy roadside zoos and other substandard facilities, where they’re kept in small barren cages—sometimes in solitary confinement. Take Walter, for just one example. Walter was dumped by a great ape exhibitor at a decrepit Texas roadside zoo called Amarillo Wildlife Refuge. A 2004 PETA investigation revealed that Walter was being kept in a dark, barren, concrete pit filled with garbage and was being sustained on a diet of dog food and rotten produce. Chimpanzees and orangutans have long lifespans, so “retirement” from entertainment can mean decades of misery for these highly intelligent and sensitive animals.

Movie Madness

The American Humane Association’s (AHA) “No Animals Were Harmed” seal of approval is extremely misleading to producers and audiences alike. AHA doesn’t monitor the living conditions of animals off set, during pre-production training, or when they’re taken from their mothers. The organization, which is funded by the SAG-AFTRA actors’ union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers—the very industry that it is tasked with 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 assertions by experts that they cannot be trained for entertainment unless they’re subjected to physical abuse.

With all the highly advanced technologies that are available today—including animatronics, animation, computer-generated imagery, and more—it has never been easier to spare great apes a lifetime of misery as “actors.” After learning about the cruelty that these animals endure behind the scenes, numerous companies and advertising agencies have pledged never to use them in their productions.

Inaccurate portrayals of chimpanzees—such as when they’re used as human caricatures or displayed in unnatural environments—have a negative impact on the species, which is endangered and which, according to Dr. Jane Goodall, may become extinct within our lifetime. A number of studies, including two conducted by researchers at the Lincoln Park Zoo and Harvard University, show that the inaccurate portrayal of apes in the media seriously hinders conservation efforts.

Miserable Mascots

Big cats, bears, monkeys, and other live animals don’t belong at athletic events or on college campuses. The bright lights, loud noises, and screaming fans can terrify and traumatize animals who, in nature, would never be exposed to these inhumane conditions.

Costumed human mascots, on the other hand, can lead cheers, respond to the crowd, and pump up the team—all things that a frightened animal can’t do. Most universities already use human mascots.

“Monkey rodeos” are making the rounds at sporting events. During these spectacles, capuchin monkeys in cowboy costumes are forced to ride dogs who “race” around an arena at speeds up to 30 mph. The monkeys cling desperately to the dogs while being violently jerked up-and-down and side-to-side, risking serious physical injury.

Nativity-Scene Nightmares

Using animals in living Nativity displays puts them at risk.

In Richmond, Virginia, three animals died after they were attacked by dogs while being used in a church Nativity scene. A camel named Ernie escaped from a Nativity scene in Maryland and was struck by a car and killed. A West Virginia man was arrested after he was caught having sex with a sheep who was being used in a crèche.

What You Can Do

Highly intelligent, sensitive animals deserve better than to be treated as if they were props for our amusement. Here’s how you can help stop the abuse:

• 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.
• If your school still exploits an animal as a mascot, start a campaign to switch to a costumed human mascot.
• If your church still uses live animals in Nativity scenes, appeal to your congregation to take an ethical stand against the practice.
• If your local sports team has a “monkey rodeo” promotion, contact team management to voice your objections.