At the premiere of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" last month, a clutch of impassioned animal activists gathered on Hollywood Boulevard. But they weren't there to throw red paint on fur-coat-wearing celebrities. Instead, one demonstrator — dressed in a full-body monkey suit — had arrived with a sign complimenting the filmmakers: "Thanks for not using real apes!"
The creative team behind "Apes" used motion-capture technology to create digitalized primates, spending tens of millions of dollars on technology that records an actor's performance and later layers it with computer graphics to create a final image — in this case, one of a realistic-looking ape.
"There are some performing animals that actually do have a more fulfilling life, but apes, you could probably say that's not the case," director Rupert Wyatt said. "In order to do what we need to do with them [in the film], you'd need to dominate and exploit them. I'd like to think that hopefully with performance-capture, we can bypass that and keep apes in the wild."
Yet "Apes" is more exception than the rule — in fact, Hollywood has been hot on live animals lately: The nonprofit American Humane Assn., which monitors the treatment of animals in filmed entertainment, is keeping tabs on more than 2,000 productions this year, 100 more than in 2010. Already, a number of high-profile 2011 films, including "Water for Elephants," "The Hangover Part II" and "Zookeeper," have drawn the ire of activists who say the creatures featured in them haven't been treated properly.
In some cases, it's not so much the treatment of the animals on set that has activists worried; it's the off-set training and living conditions that are raising concerns. And there are questions about U.S. films made overseas, which sometimes are not monitored as closely as productions filmed stateside.
For studios, dealing with such questions is often a small price to pay given the box-office payoff for animal films. From the "Lassie" movies of the 1940s, to "Flipper" in the 1960s and more recent hits like "Free Willy" and "Seabiscuit," animal films often resound strongly with audiences, raking in huge ticket sales. "Marley & Me," which starred Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson as a couple who own a rambunctious Labrador retriever, grossed over $240 million worldwide in 2008.
At least two more high-profile films that prominently feature animals will be released this year — Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo," which has wildlife including tigers and porcupines, and "Dolphin Tale," about a boy who befriends a marine mammal named Winter that has lost his tail in a crab trap.
Though many animal-protection groups are supportive of the AHA's efforts, several groups including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Animal Defenders International seem to be ratcheting up their pressure on Hollywood to be more vigilant or explore alternatives.
"I think it's very disturbing, the trend that we're seeing of more and more animals appearing in movies, and I think we should be moving in the other direction with the technology we have," said Matt Rossell, campaigns director for the U.S. branch of ADI, a nonprofit group. "We're calling on these studios to really take a good, hard look" at their use of animals in fictional entertainment.
Monitors and activists
The practice of monitoring the treatment of animals on sets dates back some 70 years. After a horse went over a cliff and fell to his death during the making of 1939's "Jesse James," Hollywood designated the AHA as the sole authorized on-set monitoring group. Any U.S. production — commercials, music videos, small independent films or major blockbusters — under a contract with the Screen Actors Guild or the AFTRA union is required to inform the organization if animals are to be used. The group will then read the script and determine whether a certified safety representative is required on set.
It has a film and television unit whose office, headquartered in Studio City, employs about 24 staff members, half of whom are safety representatives. The AHA also has about three dozen representatives on call around the country who are used on an as-needed basis. It does not charge for its monitoring services in the United States.
In 2009, the most recent year for which data was available, the AHA received roughly $10 million in public gifts, grants, contributions and member fees — none of which, the group says, comes from studios or networks because it refuses such donations to maintain its independence. That figure was up somewhat substantially from 2006, when the group brought in $6.1 million.
But because of its limited resources, the AHA says it is not able to supervise animal activity on every set. When the organization does send out a representative, that individual takes note of a number of different factors, including temperature, noise levels and enclosures. Some of the guidelines — which are laid out in an eight-chapter book — go into extreme detail: "When a weapon is fired from horseback," one rule says, "it shall be held at no less than a 45-degree angle to the horse's head to decrease the risk of powder flashes causing burns to the horse's corneas."
If the filmmakers meet all of the regulations, only then can the famous "No animals were harmed …" disclaimer be used during the end credits of the movie.
"I think there are people who believe animals should not be used in movies, and we have a different point of view," said Jone Bouman, director of communications for the organization. "Animals are part of our lives. They are a part of the stories that filmmakers tell, and if they're not onscreen, we're losing one of the best tools we have to remind people that we share the Earth with other creatures. They just have to be humanely treated."
Periodically, the AHA has faced questions about its ability to independently and thoroughly supervise such a heavy load of productions given its limited funds. The group says it does not have the resources to oversee the treatment of animals by trainers off-set. And that was the issue that arose shortly after the April release of "Water for Elephants," a period romance featuring teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson.
Just as the movie — which got the AHA stamp of approval — hit theaters, a video claiming to be of an elephant used in the film, Tai, began circulating on the Internet; it purported to show the animal being trained with electric shock devices and bull hooks.
The footage, apparently recorded surreptitiously, was released by ADI, which says it has offices in the U.S., Britain and Colombia and employs 28 people. The group devotes most of its time to undercover investigations into animal cruelty; in June, two of its members filed suit against Tai's owners, the Perris, Calif.-based Have Trunk Will Travel. They claim that those who saw the 20th Century Fox film bought tickets under the false impression that the animals in the film weren't harmed.
"The company was making all these false assurances and had duped the actors and moviemakers into making similar assurances to the public that they train with positive reinforcement," said Rossell of ADI. "They were spreading misinformation about the ways the animals were trained that we couldn't overlook."
In a statement, Kari and Gary Johnson, the owners of Have Trunk Will Travel, said they "stand by our care and training methods."
"Animal rights extremist groups are using Tai's role in 'Water for Elephants' as a vehicle to take advantage of her celebrity to further their efforts to remove elephants and all exotic animals from entertainment," the Johnsons added. "These groups have no basis of knowledge or experience working with elephants."
Fox did not respond to a request for comment about the dispute.
Partly as a result of the "Elephants" controversy, the AHA is looking into creating a symposium that would "engage trainers along with the studios and networks about positive training methods," said Bouman.
Incidents on set
But there are even on-set issues that the AHA is not yet able to tackle, such as ensuring access to the sets of U.S. productions abroad. Although the group provides services free domestically, it charges what it describes as a "minimal fee" when representatives are sent to the overseas sets of U.S. productions.
In the case of "The Hangover Part II," the R-rated comedy that has collected nearly $580 million worldwide since opening in May and features a capuchin monkey named Crystal, the AHA says it was not allowed on the film's set in Thailand. Warner Bros., which produced the picture, declined to elaborate upon the decision.
In the film, Crystal the monkey is shown smoking — a scene that enraged PETA. The movie's director, Todd Phillips, said the smoke had been digitally added, but because the film did not have the AHA's stamp of approval, the group was unable to vouch for it.
Yet even movies that do have the association's A-OK have come under fire lately, as with "Zookeeper," a family-friendly comedy with Kevin James about a man who takes care of the animals at his local zoo and discovers he can communicate with them. PETA members were on hand at the "Zookeeper" premiere but with an entirely different attitude than they displayed at the "Apes" event.
Angry activists clustered on the streets of Westwood, issuing fliers to passersby decrying the film for its treatment of an 18-year-old giraffe named Tweet who died on set. The handouts claimed that Tweet suddenly expired, possibly after ingesting a blue tarp that was part of his living quarters.
In response, Sony Pictures and MGM, the studios behind "Zookeeper," handed out news releases about the issue to reporters at the premiere.
According to those materials, a cause of death for the giraffe was never determined. However, the AHA said a necropsy was performed on the animal, and it revealed no link between the death and the giraffe's "living quarters, environment, or role in the production, which was not strenuous and consisted primarily of walking in the background."
Nevertheless, on the red carpet, members of the cast were forced to defend the film — drawing attention to the issue, perhaps exactly as the protesters had hoped.
The animals on-set "were treated gorgeously and honestly," said actress Rosario Dawson. "If I could be treated like that more often, that would be really, really nice."
Charles Martin Smith, director of the upcoming "Dolphin Tale," said he went to extreme lengths to avoid such criticism. The film is based on a true story, and he used the actual dolphin that had been injured — and now lives in captivity because it would not survive in the wild. The movie was shot at Winter's home at a marine hospital in Florida so the dolphin didn't have to be transported anywhere, and the animal was never working for more than a couple of hours, he said.
"When you're filming with an animal, you have to be flexible — you're on their schedule, so you kind of shoot it like a documentary," said the filmmaker, who also directed "Air Bud," about a dog who can play basketball.
"I certainly hope we don't face any criticism, because we worked so closely with her trainers to make sure she was OK. I can't imagine anyone saying we should put her back out into the wild, where she'd very quickly be dinner for a shark. But animals have to be dealt with properly in a film, so I think it's very legitimate to raise questions about these things."