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Animal Actors: Command Performances

Human fascination with wild and exotic animals unfortunately makes them popular subjects for advertisers and the film and TV industry. Performing elephants and “smiling” chimpanzees may grab our attention, but these animals are not willing participants in the entertainment industry.


Wild animals have extremely specialized needs. For example, elephants, big cats, and bears are roaming animals who require a vast amount of space to explore and exercise. When used for entertainment, these animals are subjected to intense confinement and deprived of opportunities to express their natural behavior, which leads to intense psychological—and often physical—distress. Bears and big cats become neurotic and pace back and forth frantically in their cages, and elephants develop painful and crippling foot conditions and arthritis.

The chimpanzee “grin” so often seen in movies and on TV is actually a grimace of fear, which they perform on command as a result of fear-based training methods. In order to force young chimpanzees to perform, trainers physically and psychologically abuse them, causing the animals to be constantly anxious and fearful, always anticipating the trainer’s next move. When primatologist Sarah Baeckler conducted a 14-month undercover investigation of prominent Hollywood training facility Amazing Animal Actors, she saw “a lot of physical violence. A lot of punching and kicking, and the use of the ‘ugly stick,’ a sawed-off broom handle, to beat the chimps” and “all kinds of physical abuse to keep them paying attention and in line with the trainer.”(1)

Wild animals can pose a danger to cast and crew, as in the case of Rocky, a 5-year-old grizzly bear who killed his trainer during the filming of a “promotional video” at Randy Miller’s Predators in Action animal facility.(2) After learning of this incident, Virginia McKenna, star of the 1966 film Born Free, remarked that “[t]he movie industry urgently needs to use its technological and creative imagination to put an end to the use of live wild animals in commercials and movies. Hollywood is a dream factory—this time the dream has become a nightmare.”(3) During the 2007 filming of the American Humane Association (AHA)–monitored film Speed Racer, a child was treated by a medic and left with a bruised arm after a 2-year-old chimpanzee bit him without warning.(4)

The inappropriate use of wild animals in entertainment and advertising can cause public misconceptions about the species. A survey of patrons at the Lincoln Park Zoo found that those who thought that chimpanzees were not endangered assumed so because the animals are commonly seen on TV and in movies.(5) And a study conducted at Duke University revealed that the inappropriate portrayal of chimpanzees in media is likely to hinder conservation efforts and distort the public’s perception of endangered animals.


That familiar statement that scrolls up the screen at the end of a film is misleading to audiences and filmmakers alike. The Denver-based group American Humane Association (AHA), formed after a horse was deliberately thrown to his death for the 1939 film Jesse James, is not adequately staffed to monitor all productions effectively, nor does it have the authority to enforce its own standards. It only has the power to grant any of six ratings, which range from “Outstanding” to “Special Circumstances” to “Not Monitored.”(10) AHA is funded by the Screen Actors Guild, which means it isn’t a truly independent monitor. An AHA representative was on set in 2008 during the filming of Speed Racer when, “in an uncontrolled impulse,” a trainer hit a chimpanzee in full view of the representative, who did not press for cruelty charges. (11) 

AHA bases its ratings only on the short period of time when animals are on the set—it supervises animals only during filming, not when they are being trained for films. In addition, the organization does not take into account animals’ living conditions or trainers’ animal-related offenses or violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act. For example, the aforementioned Predators in Action was hired to provide the grizzly bear (who later mauled his trainer) for the movie Semi-Pro, even though the company had been previously cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for Animal Welfare Act violations that included failing to maintain structures and shelters in good repair, keeping a lion in a tiny shelter box in the snow, and failing to provide animals with drinking water. AHA allowed Evan Almighty producers to use Birds & Animals Unlimited, an animal supplier warned repeatedly by the USDA for its failure to comply with veterinary care, sheltering, and caging requirements. Furthermore, no agency monitors separation of babies from their mothers, and AHA doesn’t take into consideration the disposal of animals after they are no longer of use to the exhibitor.


Only human stars can be sure of securing a retirement after a career in movies. Chimpanzees, for instance, can live to be 60 years old, but they stop being useful to the entertainment industry when they are just a few years old, at which point they become too strong and dangerous to be handled.(13) When trainers can no longer manage great apes, they typically discard the animals at roadside zoos or pseudo-sanctuaries. There, the animals may languish for decades in barren cages or dank, depressing concrete cells. During an investigation of a pseudo-sanctuary, PETA found a chimpanzee who reportedly had been used in the filming of the 2001 film The Planet of the Apes. The chimpanzee, named Chubbs, was living in an underground cement pit that resembled a dungeon and was strewn with rotten food and feces.


There is no reason to use wild animals as actors when animation, blue screen, computer-generated images, and other advanced technologies can produce realistic substitutes. PETA advocates the use of these alternatives and encourages entertainment-industry professionals to pledge not to use great apes in their work. If you see a movie that features a wild animal, walk out and tell the theater manager that you won’t support the mistreatment of animals and that you’d like a refund. Write to your local newspaper’s film critic and request that he or she mention in reviews whether or not a film features “performing” wild animals. Educate critics about the training methods and cruel treatment that wild animals endure off set as well as during the production of films and television programs. If you see a television show or commercial that uses a wild animal, call or write your local network affiliate representatives to alert them to the objectionable content.

PETA gives annual GOODY Awards to businesses whose advertisements depict animals in a positive manner. We also give BADDY Awards to companies that advertise in ways that disrespect animals. If you see a TV show, commercial, or film that uses animals in an improper way or portrays animals disrespectfully, please contact PETA.

For more information about animals in film and television, visit


1) Rachel Abramowitz, “‘Every Which Way But Abuse’ Should Be Motto,” Los Angeles Times 27 Aug. 2008.
2) Associated Press, “Bear Trainer Distraught After Deadly Attack,” 24 Apr. 2008.
 U.S. Federal News, “California Man Mauled to Death by Grizzly Bear Used in Hollywood Movies,” 23 Apr 2008.
3) Jeanette Walls, “PETA Not Monkeying Around With ‘Speed Racer,'”, 11 Jul. 2007.
4) S.R. Ross et al., “Inappropriate Use and Portrayal of Chimpanzees,” Science 314 (2008): 1487.
5) David Carrigg, “Humane Group Probes Puppy Deaths,” The Vancouver Province 16 Mar. 2007.
6), “Horses Died on Set of Flicka,” 24 Oct. 2006.
7) Associated Press, “Second Horse Killed During ‘Flicka’ Filming,” 29 Apr. 2005.
8) James Bates and Ralph Frammolino, “Questions Raised About Group That Watches Out for Animals in Movies,” Los Angeles Times 9 Feb. 2001.
9) American Humane, Film and TV Unit, “Earning Our Disclaimer,” 2009.
10) American Humane, “Speed Racer,” Movie Reviews 2008.
11) Abramowitz.
12) Associated Press, “Going Ape Over Movie Monkeys,” 20 Mar. 2006.