I spend a lot of time knocking the entertainment industry in this column, but the one thing that I have long admired is how movies and TV have shown a general consciousness about environmental and animal welfare issues and recognize the potential positive or negative impact of how those topics are portrayed onscreen. Since most of the movies I saw as a child were about animals, such as The Jungle Book, Bambi, and Sounder, I think the deep connection I feel toward film and animals are intertwined. I remember seeing The Day of the Dolphin when I was 9 years old and walking away with a strong feeling that dolphins were intelligent creatures needing to be protected, not exploited. I believe that the concern many people have for animal issues was initiated by stories they saw portrayed onscreen: Gorillas in the Mist increased awareness about the plight of African mountain gorillas, which is one reason why those animals still exist. So over the past couple of weeks it has been particularly upsetting to me to see a couple of gruesomely thoughtless and insensitive onscreen depictions of animals: Careerbuilder.com’s chimpanzee-filled Super Bowl ad, and the Liam Neeson–versus-killer-wolves action film The Grey. In both of these cases, the people behind these productions have taken the kind of profit over consequences approach to their product I would expect more from a big oil company than the creative community, and, sadly, the result will be increased cruelty and death for endangered animals.
This is the third time that animal welfare groups have protested Careerbuilder’s chimp commercials, in which Chimps dressed as office workers act badly and their human co-workers are urged to send résumés to the job search website. While the production of the commercial was done under American Humane Association guidelines, these rules only regulate what happens on the sets, not before or after. The chimps used in the spots, and most film productions, are young, smaller animals; adult chimps are quite large and less cute. Young chimps, like humans, have a lengthy maturation process and need to stay in their family groups for a long time, but “when people breed and raise chimps to be pets or performers, those ties are severed very early,” Dr. Steven Ross of the Fisher Center for the study and conservation of apes at the Lincoln Park Zoo recently told Medill Reports. This, he says, leads to psychological problems with the chimps. Since they become unwanted for film and TV work after about seven years of age, they are usually dumped, sold to roadside zoos or as pets. A few make it to sanctuaries, but this is also problematic. Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, the largest animal welfare organization in the country, writes, “the public supports [these chimps] for the remaining 40 or so years of their lives at a staggering expense. That’s what happened to the last batch of CareerBuilder chimps. CareerBuilder likely paid $3.5 million to show the advertisement, about what it will take kindhearted citizens to pay for the lifetime care of five chimpanzees cast off from the entertainment industry that underpins their use in such commercials.” And once in the sanctuaries, the chimps can’t fully adjust — having been taken from their mothers at a young age, their ability to socialize later on is limited. An even worse aspect to these ads is the message it sends to the public. A recent Duke University study found that representations of silly chimps in the media causes people to think chimps are not endangered, which “negatively distorts the public's perception and hinders chimpanzee conservation efforts.”
The Grey, a B action film about a group of stranded oil workers who are hunted by a rogue pack of vicious man-eaters, is to wolves what Birth of a Nation is to African-Americans. Wolves have been hunted almost to extinction from the time that European settlers arrived in North America. Only because of their listing under the Endangered Species Act 35 years ago are there any wolves left in the lower 48 states at all. Yet even now, wolves only occupy less than 5 percent of the territory that they've historically roamed. Last year, under pressure from trophy hunters and anti-wolf groups, the Obama administration de-listed wolves as endangered in the Great Lakes and northern Rockies, where there are only a few thousand of these animals left — this alone may lead to their extinction. And now they are being portrayed (in CG form) as snarling, bloodthirsty villains in movie theaters and commercials everywhere, a ruthless depiction that will surely only exacerbate matters and make it more difficult for the Humane Society and other animal groups to stop the slaughter. The truth is that wolves are no danger to humans and they pose little threat to livestock (last year in Wisconsin only 47 farms out of 7,000 reported wolves killing their animals), but they do keep other animal populations in check, which in turn reduces destruction of key vegetation and maintains balance in the ecosystem: That is how nature works. “In balance” is not how I would describe Joe Carnahan, The Grey's writer-director: Before shooting started in British Columbia, he bought four dead wolves from a local trapper, two to use as props, and two to feed to the actors, as some kind of sick research for their roles. There is so much wrong with this. First of all, Carnahan did business with a trapper: Animal traps are incredibly cruel, causing huge pain to snared animals who can remain in the trap for days until their murderers come and finish them off with a gun or a cudgel. And to use the murdered animals for scenery? I’ve never heard of anyone contracting with a hunter to kill an animal for use on a film; production design departments usually have fake animals built for that purpose. And as for using the other two for a "research" meal, it's obvious that a director this bizarre is going to be so out of touch that he will not adhere to normal rules of propriety and custom, but it does surprise me that others on the production, like producers Ridley and Tony Scott or even Liam Neeson, would not object to such ghastly and irresponsible behavior. Unfortunately, the negative and false representation of wolves in this movie will lead to many more killed than the four that were taken during production. It is a fact that huge numbers of sharks, including smaller harmless species, were needlessly slaughtered after the movie Jaws came out in 1975 .
The best part of writing this weekly column has been that so many people I know and encounter in the entertainment field read it and frequently give me their feedback, both positive and negative. I have received the strongest response from younger people working as assistants and other lower level jobs, who will eventually be in positions of power and have influence over what movies and TV shows get made and how they are made. So I'd like to take this opportunity to implore those in the creative community to think a bit more about the messages contained in their work and how they may affect the real world. It is certainly possible to make money and not do damage, or even to change things for the better. Last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes did just that, employing digital technology to avoid the use of live apes and imparting a positive message about animals and how we treat them. And while I’m at it, I also want to request that someone at E! take that horrible Joan Rivers off the fucking air: Just last week I saw her wearing fur on her stupid Fashion Police show. So many celebrities, like Oprah Winfrey, have come out against wearing fur: Fifteen to twenty percent of animals used for their pelts are caught in cruel traps that also routinely catch pets and other endangered wildlife, and the rest are bred and held in tiny, inhumane cages in the cruelest of conditions until they are ruthlessly killed. One rarely sees anyone wearing fur on television anymore, unless it is a period drama, because most of society has come to see it as an immoral display of uncaring and cruelty. Rivers’s glorification of fur is as outdated as her lame jokes, worship of decadence, and addiction to cosmetic surgery. Sure, a stupid coat worn by an old woman on a gossip show may not seem that important, but it is all part of a whole, and we as an influential industry should be more caring rather than less, and should want whatever we present to the public to lessen instead of increase cruelty and destruction of the other creatures with whom we share the planet. We’re better than this, and we can and should do better than this.
Follow Gavin Polone on Twitter: @gavinpolone