Animal Actors: Involuntary Performers

Human fascination with and affection for 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.

Problems With Using Wild Animals
Exotic animals have specialized needs that are usually neglected or denied altogether in movie and advertising projects. Elephants are highly intelligent, social animals who roam many miles a day in the wild, and bears and big cats become neurotic when confined.

The chimpanzee “grin” so often seen in movies and on TV is actually a grimace of fear or a carefully choreographed response to a command. In order to force them to perform, trainers often beat young chimpanzees with their fists, clubs, or even broom handles. Shock devices may also be used. This systematic pattern of abuse and dominance causes the animals to be constantly anxious and fearful, always anticipating the next blow. Apes are routinely beaten into submission and forced to pantomime human behaviors that are foreign and confusing. 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 fatally wounded 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 movies3 Hollywood is a dream factory—this time the dream has become a nightmare.” 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 film 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

Problems With Using Domesticated Animals
Dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals are at risk because they can be easily and cheaply replaced. In 2007, Disney faced calls to drop distribution plans for its film Snow Buddies when 15 puppies used in the production got sick and some died.4 Many of the dozens of puppies were shipped to the Canadian production company from an unlicensed commercial breeder in New York at 6 weeks of age rather than at 8 weeks as required by federal law. The use of purebred dogs in movies such as 101 Dalmatians and Beverly Hills Chihuahua, in TV shows such as Frasier and in commercials such as those for Taco Bell have caused a jump in the popularity of certain breeds, yet very few people investigate the traits and needs of the breed of dog that they are purchasing. When people realize how difficult Dalmatians can be to train, for example, or that deafness is common in the breed, rescue groups and shelters become flooded with them.

Horses are easily spooked and susceptible to heat exhaustion. Because of the potential for injury, horses should never be forced or coerced into performing in scenes that involve racing, loud noise, fire, high speeds, elevated platforms, or stunts in which they are required to trip or roll. Despite the AHA’s monitoring of the 2005 film Flicka, one horse broke her neck after reportedly becoming entangled in a rope, and a second horse was euthanized after breaking his leg in a similar incident.7 A bull in a cattle drive scene in the 2003 film The Rundown suffered a broken neck when his horns became caught in the ground, and a horse in the 2001 film American Outlaws died after breaking away from a herd and becoming impaled on a hitching post.8

A PETA eyewitness investigation of Birds & Animals Unlimited led to a complaint filed with the USDA for alleged violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act involving inadequate shelter, nutrition and veterinary treatment for dogs, cats and others.For more on this case, please visit

‘No Animals Were Harmed …’
That familiar statement that scrolls up the screen at the end of a film is no guarantee that animals were not exploited, hurt, or even killed during production. For example, even though shock collars and BB guns were used to train horses for a film called Running Free and a horse died on the set of Simpatico, both productions received the AHA’s blessing.10 The Los Angeles–based group, 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.”11 The AHA is funded by the Screen Actors Guild, which means that it is paid by the industry that it monitors. An AHA representative was on set 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.12

The 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. The director of the AHA’s Film and Television Unit, Karen Rosa, told the Los Angeles Times, “We’re a non-profit. We’re not staffed to do that kind of comprehensive oversight …. To make the assumption that when they leave the set they will treat the animals differently is not something we do.”13

In addition to not monitoring preproduction training or living conditions, the AHA does not take into account a trainer’s 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 USDA for animal welfare 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. The 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 the AHA doesn’t take into consideration living conditions or the disposal of animals after they are no longer of use to the exhibitor.

After Their 15 Minutes of Fame
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 to be managed.14 Most captive chimpanzees’ canine teeth are pulled, and trainers may fit them with shock collars under their clothes so that they can continue to control even mature chimpanzees.  Chimpanzees and other great apes used for entertainment are torn away from their mothers as babies and physically and psychologically abused during training. When they reach adolescence and become too strong to control, they are often dumped at miserable roadside zoos, as was the fate of Chubbs, one of the chimpanzees used in the Tim Burton-directed Planet of the Apes.

What You Can Do
There is no reason to use live 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 executives to pledge not to use great apes in their work. If you see a movie that uses live animals, walk out and tell the theater manager that you won’t support the abuse 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 uses animals. Educate critics about the training methods and cruel treatment that animals endure in film productions. If you see a television show or commercial that uses a live animal, call or write your local network affiliate representatives to alert them to the objectionable content.

If you see a TV show, commercial, or film that uses animals in an improper way or portrays animals disrespectfully, please contact PETA.


1Rachel Abramowitz, “‘Every Which Way But Abuse’ Should Be Motto,” Los Angeles Times 27 Aug. 2008.
2Associated Press, “Bear Trainer Distraught After Deadly Attack,” 24 Apr. 2008.
3U.S. Federal News, “California Man Mauled to Death by Grizzly Bear Used in Hollywood Movies,” 23 Apr 2008.
4Jeanette Walls, “PETA Not Monkeying Around With ‘Speed Racer,'”, 11 Jul. 2007.
5S.R. Ross et al., “Inappropriate Use and Portrayal of Chimpanzees,” Science 314 (2008): 1487.
6David Carrigg, “Humane Group Probes Puppy Deaths,” The Vancouver Province 16 Mar. 2007., “Horses Died on Set of Flicka,” 24 Oct. 2006.
8Associated Press, “Second Horse Killed During ‘Flicka’ Filming,” 29 Apr. 2005.
9Gary Baum,”A Dead Kangaroo, a Bleeding Pig: Hollywood’s Top Animal Training Firm Hit With PETA Abuse Claims (Exclusive),” The Hollywood Reporter, 11 Jan 2017.
10James Bates and Ralph Frammolino, “Questions Raised About Group That Watches Out for Animals in Movies,” Los Angeles Times 9 Feb. 2001.
11American Humane Association, Film and TV Unit, “Earning Our Disclaimer,” 2009.
12American Humane Association, “Speed Racer,” Movie Reviews 2008.
14Associated Press, “Going Ape Over Movie Monkeys,” 20 Mar. 2006.

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 Ingrid E. Newkirk

“Almost all of us grew up eating meat, wearing leather, and going to circuses and zoos. We never considered the impact of these actions on the animals involved. For whatever reason, you are now asking the question: Why should animals have rights?” READ MORE

— Ingrid E. Newkirk, PETA President and co-author of Animalkind