15 February 2012

Animal exploitation for entertainment: A societal epidemic

Monkeys, wolves and elephants: these are a mere three animals out of dozens which are subjected to needless exploitation by the human entertainment industry.

The 2012 Superbowl fanfare, hype, and celebrity idolization has already passed, and, as tends to be the case with stories blown out of proportion by mainstream news networks, other happenings at the time were buried with ease and quickly forgotten. One such story involved controversy surrounding a particular commercial by CareerBuilder.com, the largest online employment website in the United States. The advertisements essentially feature a man in various office-related settings filled with disruptive, suit-wearing chimpanzees who do nothing but cause mischief for him as he tries to get his work done (view here).

Advocates of animal welfare concerned about the chimps were met with an official response by CareerBuilder on their website which says that the company "supports the fair and humane treatment of all animals" because it is a "very important" issue. The website goes on to explain that the "strictest guidelines to ensure our chimpanzee stars were treated well and not harmed in any way" were followed, "top trainers" were hired, and the American Humane Association was present during filming.

Though it's definitely a good thing that animal safety was taken into consideration on-set, the issue at hand pertains more to what goes on prior to and after filming. Wayne Pacelle, President of the Humane Society of the United States, explains in greater detail on his blog, illustrating how infant chimpanzees are taken from their "fiercely protective mothers," causing them to suffer long-term psychological damage before they are subjected to "abusive training". Pacelle elaborates further, depicting what tends to happen after the commercials are produced: "It ends with the chimpanzees too large to control, usually before age 7, when they are dumped at roadside zoos, in small backyard cages, or used for breeding the next generation of chimpanzee performers or pets. A lucky few go to sanctuary, where the public supports them 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."

Much of the scientific community seems to agree with the message of activists like Pacelle. Steve Ross, Ph.D., who works as an assistant director at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo, said that there is "ample scientific evidence" demonstrating long-term negative impacts on conservation efforts resulting from the use of chimpanzees in commercials. Kevin Bell, President and CEO of the Lincoln Park Zoological Society, also expressed disappointment with CareerBuilder, noting that the process of using chimps is "rife with welfare concerns".

Interestingly, researchers at Duke University tested the argument, showing 165 individuals one of three videos: the first emphasized the need to protect chimps; the second showed standard footage of chimps in the wild; and the third displayed chimps behaving silly and wearing clothes. Afterwards, participants filled out questionnaires to assess their understanding of wild chimps, and were given the opportunity to give a charity donation towards conservation efforts. Not only were those who watched the "silly" video less likely to donate, but "more than 35% of those who watched the humorous ads came away thinking that individuals should have the right to own a chimpanzee as a pet, compared with only 10% of those who watched the two other films," according to Science.

Aside from monkeys, a recent article by Gavin Palone titled, "It’s Been a Shameful Month for Animal Cruelty in Entertainment," reveals how Liam Neeson's 2012 film, The Grey, portrays wild wolves as "vicious man-eaters" as they hunt down and devour a group of stranded oil workers. Such depictions are damaging because they contribute to shaping an unrealistic public perception of wolves as naturally aggressive towards humans without provocation, even though wolf attacks are rare, and when they do happen they tend to be the result of human encroachment on their territory. Bad public perception could mean less empathy when, for example, a ban is lifted on wolf hunting, as was done recently by the Obama administration. The Grey is also disturbing because apparently real wolf corpses were used as props, an act of blatant speciesism (it's very unlikely the film crew would have contemplated using real human corpses as film props).

Elephants abducted in to the entertainment industry have also become a cause of concern for animal welfare advocates. MSPCA-Angell, a private, non-profit organization, launched a campaign in February of this year to lobby and raise awareness about Bill S1706, which would, according to their website, "ban the cruelest instruments used on elephants that perform in circuses". Linda Huebner, Deputy Director of Advocacy for MSPCA-Angell, writes: "The use of bullhooks and restraints is extremely cruel, causing painful injuries and adding to these animals' already intense suffering. Moreover, they do not mitigate the huge threat to public safety inherent to forcing large wild animals to perform unnatural tricks in front of large crowds of people."

Indeed, it was only last November that Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus were charged with a $270,000 civil penalty, the largest ever against an exhibitor under the federal Animal Welfare Act, for mistreating not only elephants, but also zebras and tigers. Such laws, however, may not act as the best deterrent, especially when federal agencies tasked with regulatory duties, such as the USDA (the only government entity with the power to enforce the Animal Welfare Act), are well-known for closing investigations prematurely and overriding its own inspectors' determinations, which has allowed for Ringling Brothers to deny allegations in the past regarding elephant abuse.

Aside from monkeys, wolves, and elephants, other instances of non-human exploitation include bullfights, horse races and zoos. Nonetheless, it seems as though this subject will likely be with us so long as audiences continue feeding profit into the machine that drives it. Until we can recognize needless exploitation, condemn it loudly, and refuse to take part in it, the non-human animal entertainment industry will have minimal incentive for ending the cruel subjection of cognizant beings to unnatural conditions for the mere amusement of a superior species.

Jonathan Reynolds
Jonathan is a freelance writer and blogger residing in upstate New York.

Photo credit: Screen capture