Alisa Manzelli, Global Animal

When taking a look at films like War Horse and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it seems as though more and more directors are actively avoiding animal cruelty during production while using alternative means such as improved technology. Even when films adhere to guidelines implemented by the American Humane Association (AHA) and claim “No Animals Were Harmed,” producers often overlook how performing animal abuse persists beyond the studio. So the question is: Could animal actors disappear from cinema altogether?

Actor Jeremy Irvine and Finder in the film "War Horse." Photo Credit: Touchstone Pictures

The 2011 Oscar-nominated film War Horse went to remarkably great lengths to avoid placing animals in any sort of danger. The film chiefly uses a South African bay horse named Finder to play Joey. Finder also starred in the 2003 film Seabiscuit, and the movie’s horse trainer, Bobby Lovgren, handpicked the horse for the role. In addition, thirteen other horses played Joey to demonstrate age progression and avoid placing too much stress on one particular animal.

Computer graphics were also heavily emphasized in this film for shots where bombs appear to fall near the horse. And when computer graphics failed to be realistic, the film incorporated a life-sized animatronic horse for certain close-up shots. Movie props were also replaced with safer alternatives (i.e. barbed wire was actually harmless plastic).

The film’s director, Steven Spielberg, told the American Humane Association, “The thing I emphasized from the outset was that the horses had to be safe.”

An AHA representative, Barbara Carr, was present for every shot in the film. “Production eagerly did everything they could to comply with my requests,” Carr said. “They were sincere in their desire to make the best and safest movie for the horses. Steven told me that, before a shot, he would look at me and make sure I was OK with the scene. And then he knew he could begin filming, knowing I had everything under control.”

Caesar the chimp, a CG animal portrayed by Andy Serkis, is shown in a scene from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

Another animal-friendly film of 2011 was Rise of the Planet of the Apes. PETA praised the film in a review, dubbing it, “the first live-action film in the history of movies to star and be told from the point of view of a sentient animal—a character with humanlike qualities.”

What’s more, the movie did not use a single live ape during filming. Instead, the film relied on computer-generated imagery (CGI) and Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital to create lifelike apes using ground-breaking visual effects.

PETA went so far to give the film’s director, Rupert Wyatt, a Proggy Award, given annually to animal-friendly companies, people, and products. The film itself also received PETA’s seal of approval for its use of CGI and for spotlighting animal rights messages.

Wyatt explained that the movie largely focuses on humanity’s maltreatment of captive apes. Apes are the heroes of this film, while humans are the villains. Rupert said he could not imagine a worse way to undercut his film’s message than by using real apes during production.

However, animals have been a part of Hollywood cinema since the very beginning. Breakout star Rin Tin Tin, a German Shepherd, nearly won Best Actor at the 1929 Academy Awards. Achieving the same level of fame as his two-legged colleagues, Rin Tin Tin’s talent forced the Academy to implement guidelines that specifically exclude animals from award nominations.

Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and Tai the elephant in "Water for Elephants." Photo Credit: James David

The possibility of an animal winning Best Actor occurred again at this year’s 84th Annual Academy Awards after a charismatic Jack Russell terrier named Uggie won the hearts of millions for his performance in the 2011 film The Artist. With some critics describing him as stealing every scene in the film, Uggie garnered quite the following. In fact, his fans created a “Consider Uggie” campaign to get him on the Best Actor ballot. Although Uggie didn’t get the nomination, he made a surprise appearance at the Oscars in a skit with Billy Crystal and appeared on stage with the film’s cast to accept the award for Best Picture.

Uggie also appeared in the 2010 film Water for Elephants, another film that heavily relies on animal acting. Yet, unlike War Horse or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this film does not have such a squeaky-clean animal record. Although the producers and AHA claim no animals were harmed in the making, the film prompted allegations of animal abuse. A 2005 video released by Animal Defenders International (ADI), shows that prior to the film’s production, Tai the elephant was abused by her trainers at Have Trunk Will Travel, an elephant rental company. ADI contacted AHA, urging them to re-evaluate how they assess the standards of using animals in films to include how the animals are treated off set and in preparation of filming.

With up to 100 animals on-set on any given day of production, Cameron Crowe’s 2011 film We Bought a Zoo has also received some backlash despite receiving the AHA’s “No Animals Were Harmed” certification. Prior to production, PETA urged Crowe and Fox Studios to use high-tech computer-generated imagery, warning them about how wild animals used for films are often subjected to starvation, beatings, and jolts with electric-shock devices during pre-production training.

Matt Damon and a Bengal tiger in "We Bought A Zoo." Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox Films

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve come to believe that from the perspective of wild animals, there is nothing good for them in entertainment,” Joyce Tischler from the general counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund tells Time magazine. “I just cannot see a reason to support it.”

Taking into account Hollywood’s technological advancements like CGI, there really is no need to use animals in Hollywood. And when comparing the ratings for War Horse and Rise of the Planet of the Apes to Water for Elephants and We Bought a Zoo, it just goes to show that using wild animals for entertainment does not pay.