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Animal Welfare on Movie Sets Continues to be Concern

Animals have been used and sometimes abused in films since the early days of movies. But the American Humane Association has worked since 1940 to ensure that no animals are harmed in film production. The animal protection organization is expanding its work, while others question why animal actors are needed at all in a digital age.

The new film Dolphin Tale tells the true story of Winter, a dolphin who lost her tail and with the help of a young boy, gets a prosthetic replacement. The American Humane Association worked with filmmakers to ensure the welfare of Winter and the other animal performers.

A thick book of guidelines tells Hollywood moviemakers how to treat any species, explains Karen Rosa, who oversees the association's film and television unit.

“Everything from the smallest insect to the largest mammal. We believe that for the sake of entertainment, everybody should go home alive," Rosa said.

That didn't always happen in the early days of film. In the 1939 film Jesse James, a blindfolded horse was driven off a cliff and plunged to its death. The next year, guidelines were in place to ensure humane conditions for animal actors.

The new film Rise of the Planet of the Apes has added something new to the discussion. The latest entry in a decades-old film franchise, the story concerns an experiment that leads to the development of intelligent apes. The chimps, gorillas and orangutans in the film were created by computer and no animals were used in the filming.

At a Los Angeles event promoting the movie, filmmakers found support from the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which carries on the work of the primate specialist in protecting mountain gorillas in Congo and Rwanda. Her story was recounted in the film Gorillas in the Mist which starred Sigourney Weaver.

Fossey Fund president Clare Richardson appreciates the work of those who protect animal actors. “But I think we send a stronger message when we say, phase it out people, you really don't need it,” Richardson said.

She says animals, especially higher primates like apes and chimpanzees, need added protection.

Animal performers have a long history in film, from the canine actor Benji to the thousands of creatures in the Harry Potter series, both real and digitally created. The American Humane Association has an expert on location, whenever a script calls for an animal, and works on more than 2,000 productions every year. Karen Rosa appreciates digital moviemaking, but says there is nothing like the real thing.

“Capturing the real animal and its personality, the individual animal as well as the collective representation of the species, is unique and very special that it can be presented on film,” Rosa said.

She says the human-animal bond needs to be shown by real actors, both human and animal.

Those on all sides of the issue seem to welcome the new technology, which they say expands the creative capabilities of filmmakers, while helping to safeguard the welfare of animal actors.