BY MADHURA NADARAJAH
In case anyone hasn’t heard, the film A Dog’s Purpose that debuted in theaters on Jan. 27 is circulating buzz around the country.Sadly, the attention is coming for all the wrong reasons. Earlier this month, a leaked video surfaced on the internet that seemed to depict animal abuse during the film’s production. In the video, a german shepherd named Hercules, one of the five dogs used in the film, resisted the commands of his trainer. The trainer wanted to put the german shepherd in a pool for a specific scene, but the dog refused and eventually was forcibly pushed into the water. The german shepard seemed as if it was about to drown and, after struggling to stay afloat, crew members had to retrieve the animal out of the pool to avoid a possible disaster . This video begs the question: should animals be as characters used in films?
Anyone who has seen the leaked footage would probably say no. The video created a wave of anger amongst the public, dog lovers or not. In fact, many people announced on social media that, although they were looking forward to watching the film, they will not be viewing it due to the allegations of animal abuse. A Dog’s Purpose, which is based off of a William Bruce Cameron novel, depicts a dog’s multiple lives from birth to death to reincarnation as a different breed to be cared for by a different owner. Much of the talk on social media has revolved around individuals not wanting to support a film (financially) when there is evidence that suggests the animal actors were abused. Despite the controversy, a surprising amount of celebrities, most notably Ellen DeGeneres, said they still plan to go to see the film. DeGeneres blames the individual who recorded the inconspicuous video and believes that watching the film will reinstate people’s respect for animals.
However, the public backlash from the leaked footage suggests that maybe live animals shouldn’t be used in film production. It’s a question of rights and consent. On Jan. 21, women’s marches took place in various cities around the world. What was great about these marches was that “walkers” celebrated various civil rights of life — animal rights being one of those groups. However, the animal posters in the crowds usually arose from vegans who rightfully acknowledge that animals should not be slaughtered to satisfy human cravings. With the advent of the leaked video and the resurgence of human rights movements, it opens up room for debate on the use of animals as actors. The most obvious reason is because animals cannot communicate language that is understandable to humans. This lack of communication postulates the argument on animals giving informed consent to be used as actors. Sarah Ballentine, a senior biology major with a concentration in Pre-veterinary sciences, comments that, “We as a culture find more comfort in using these [domestic] animals because they are in our households and are easy to train more humanely. This actually leads us to taking advantage of them even further. For the scene for the movie A Dog’s Purpose, where the german shepherd was placed against his will, is one way we as humans suppress and ignore the capabilities of animals to feel fear and anxiety.”
People may argue and state that the American Humane Society, which monitors every film that features animals on screen, ensures that animals were safe during production. The “No Animals Were Harmed,” mark that appears either during the opening or closing credits is issued by the American Humane Society. In fact, the American Humane Society granted the trademark to A Dog’s Purpose and remained supportive of their decision following a private investigation by the Society that prompted no signs of animal abuse. PETA however, determined that the footage was unethical and urged their social media followers to boycott the movie. The problem remains that animals never (and will never be able) to give consent, in the traditional sense, to be used as an actor. Furthermore, the wagging of a tail by a dog or the purring of a cat are not reflective of consent either.
On the topic of the dangerous film stunts, Ballentine states, “the fact that we expect animals to perform dangerous stunts without using green screen or technological enhancement is unfair on the basis that human actors are expected to put their lives in danger for the sake of show; and these actors have the capability to say yes or no. With the use of technology and for an increasing push to respect and love animals, entertainment industries should begin to wean out their use of animals in shows and start utilizing other digital forms.” Given the rapid development of technology, especially animatronics, these digital techniques may be even better suited to fully eliminate the need for animal actors. The animatronics might take longer, but they provide more freedom to the film production company, and protect the animals. This is because film production companies can program the animatronics to do various scenes and stunts, for instance jumping in a pool. Economically speaking, while animatronics might be a more expensive option, it prevents any chance of animal abuse backlash — the latter will definitely hinder film sales. Furthermore, and most importantly, eradicating the use of animal actors provides a step forward in the human rights movement.