Animals on screen are a cherished part of Australia’s film and television history. From Red Dog (2011) to Babe (1995) to Phar Lap (1983), we love a quintessentially Australian story with a charming animal protagonist.
But are the animal stars that appear on our screens protected effectively?
With the rise of animal activism and ethical consumerism, industries that use animals for entertainment are at risk of losing their ‘social license to operate’ (SLO) if they fail to demonstrate their commitment to safeguarding animal welfare.
Our multidisciplinary team delved into the current regulations for animals in filmed media, assessed them against the Five Domains Model of animal welfare (nutrition, physical environment, health, behavioural interactions, mental state), and sourced historical examples of animal incidents to illustrate deficiencies in regulation.
Results of our investigation are now published in the journal Animals.
The animals lacking protection
In the 2021 Australian Season 7 of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! two contestants were bitten – one on the face at least three times by a jungle carpet python snake, and the other on the hand.
The aggression demonstrated by those snakes was a clear indication of their behaviour and mental state being negatively affected. Rodents, reptiles, and invertebrates are repeatedly subject to exploitation in this series; and though there is public uproar, this uproar dies down … at least until the next incident.
In 2010, RSPCA NSW prosecuted ITV Studios for committing an act of aggravated cruelty in killing and eating a rat on set.
That the production company was prosecuted for harming a rat, but not for its treatment of reptiles and invertebrates, highlights the need for protection of the welfare of all animals, regardless of their species.
So, the next question is, of the animals that are protected, how well are they protected?
No national regulation
In Australia, there is no national legislation governing animal welfare. Instead, Australia relies on state and territory-governed legislation and regulation to protect the welfare of animals in filmed media including film, television, and commercials.
These regulations only partially address the animal’s behavioural interactions or mental state and lack the detail that, albeit voluntary, guidelines from the United States and the United Kingdom address.
Regardless, without the requirement to notify the regulating authority that filming is taking place (only NSW has provisions for notification of all productions), productions using or abusing animals may not be identified until the production is released to the public or unless cast or crew come forward as whistle-blowers.
Gold standard guidelines are voluntary
Both American Humane Association’s (AHA) ‘Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media’ and the RSPCA UK’s ‘Guidelines for the Welfare of Performing Animals’ are comprehensive, covering veterinary care, productions, cast, and crew, costumes, rigging and props, location and set safety, special effects, and stunts. But these guidelines aren’t mandatory and therefore difficult to enforce.
In the US, Humane Hollywood has regulated the welfare of animals in filmed media since 1940. However, for several reasons – namely industry sanctions, funding, awards, and certification – the regulation of animals in filmed media in America is arguably not independent.
Abiding by the AHA regulations ensure the film receives the “No Animals Were Harmed” certification. However, this has been called into question following media reports of animal injuries or safety incidents in which films still received certification, for example, War Horse (2011) and Life of Pi (2012).
Lack of independence in regulation can, and has, resulted in a lack of transparency, justification of policy decisions, and the perception of an impartial regulatory process that is skewed towards protecting the reputation of the productions rather than the welfare of the animals.
Setting a dangerous precedent
Even with regulation, the use of wild animals on set in Australia is inconsistent.
Producers of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) applied to, and were approved by, the federal Department of Environment to import two white-throated capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus) from California to Queensland for filming.
Several reasons were argued by animal protection organisations, including RSPCA, for why this was an issue – (1) their use may encourage illegal wildlife trafficking; (2) amending the list of species that can be imported under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 sets a dangerous precedent; and (3) there are significant concerns for the welfare of the primates involving their use for entertainment purposes as well as the stress confinement and transportation is likely to cause.
That CGI plays such a significant role in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, from the skeletal crew to the undead shark to Davy Jones’ tentacled face, leaves little justification for using the capuchins.
One of the capuchins reportedly experienced frequent vomiting throughout filming and bit a make-up artist. Despite this, the film still received the AHA “No Animals Were Harmed” full certification. No such certification is available from an Australian regulating authority.
Behaviour and mental state of animals
Animal welfare regulation needs to be supported by assessable, enforceable standards and based on the most recent scientific developments in animal welfare.
It should also be noted that negative effects on behaviour and mental state can last long after production is complete.
For example, although the US AHA guidelines recognise issues surrounding the impact on primate socialisation and the need for retirement plans, because apes, for example, can live up to 60 years but typically retire from films at eight years of age, their mental state must be protected for decades after filming has finished.
Training methods have also started to receive more attention, with some guidelines promoting positive reinforcement, including those of the ACT, US AHA, and RSPCA UK. This is a technique that rewards animals, through food, play or praise, for performing the ‘good’ behaviour, and doesn’t include aversive techniques or punishment.
The Australian standards for exhibited animals (not specifically concerning filming but by institutions including zoos) provide a further precedent as they require that trained behaviours are reflective of those expressed by that species in the wild.
This is in direct opposition to how animals have been used on set in the past. It means films showing animals in costume or conducting human-like behaviours on set – as primates are often required to do – may not comply.
The future of animals in film
A consistent nationwide approach to regulation and monitoring of animals both on and off set will ensure the industry’s social licence to operate is protected, as well as the safety and welfare of those animals taking part.
Once a standardised system for monitoring welfare is established, the number of incidents and the type and duration of the work animals undertake on production sets can be better quantified.
However, alternatives to animal use should always be considered during production development. Further, restricting the use of wild animals and considering the protection of animals not yet protected by legislation is critical.
Reluctance to monitor and regulate animals in filmed media more closely may be due to lack of resources and the implications that increasing transparency might elicit, including a push towards a full replacement of animals.
That is not what we are suggesting here, rather that greater transparency and understanding of the issues will lead to better welfare outcomes for those animals involved.
Researchers on this project include Dr Peta Hitchens, Dr Lauren Hemsworth, Dr Kirsten Stevens, Associate Professor Annabelle Murphy and Rachael Booth from the University of Melbourne, and Dr Bidda Jones AM from the University of Sydney.
Banner: Still from the movie Babe: Pig in the city/ Alamy