A look at animals’ roles in the entertainment and advertising industries
By Katie Marsico
Forget Atonement! Who didn’t wipe a tear or two from their eye during The Horse Whisperer? Besides, we all know that Eddy was as pivotal a part of Frasier as Kelsey Grammar. And of course Morris the cat offers as powerful a grocery-store advertising pitch for pet food as Paul Newman does for his salad dressing. So what’s behind the feathered, furred (and sometimes finned) star power that spills onto everything from blockbuster films to sitcoms to print advertisements? More to the point, what is life like for these animals, and what options exist for people who want to give their animal companions a share of the spotlight?
Although Spuds MacKenzie and Dr. Doolittle have captured wide public attention, most average guardians aren’t aware exactly how big a role animals play in the entertainment and advertising industries. “We are talking about a $58-billion business,” says Bash Dibra, famed animal trainer and bestselling author. Dibra, who is based out of New York, works with the animal companions of human stars such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Alec Baldwin, as well as pets who are regarded as celebrities in their own right. “Over time we’ve increased our standards of dealing with animals in this business, ranging from the quality of life they enjoy to the quality of care they receive,” Dibra says. “I’m now pushing to see to it that pet stars get residuals for their efforts.”
Ensuring that animal actors and models are treated like royalty—as opposed to just Hollywood commodities—is also a concept with which the American Humane Association (AHA) is more than familiar. Jone Bouman, communications director for the AHA’s Film & TV Unit in Los Angeles, explains how her organization employs a variety of specialists to be present on sets and in studios to safeguard the welfare of animal stars.
“AHA is actually part of the [Screen Actors’ Guild] SAG contract,” Bouman says. “That means that animals are considered actors. We give safety-precaution talks prior to performances and shoots and are thereby often able to prevent bad or harmful situations from occurring. In addition, our staff is highly trained; our employees are not just pet lovers. We work with everyone from exotic to equine specialists, many of whom are often humane officers.” The AHA has a six-tiered rating system that is used to describe its level of involvement in a specific film, as well as the actual treatment of animals who participate in a given production. The nonprofit is also responsible for providing the “No animals were harmed” end-credit disclaimer, which frequently rolls across the screen at a movie’s conclusion.
“The public looks for those words in a big way,” Bouman emphasizes. “It helps audiences draw the line between perception, which could involve gruesome battle scenes and very tense moments that feature animals, and reality.” But what precisely are the realities of being a professional animal star?
While many people may fantasize about Hollywood studios or Manhattan modeling shoots, several animal-rights groups advocate that the lifestyle isn’t for everyone who can sit, stay, and wag their tail on cue. To this end, the AHA is far from shy when it comes to expressing its views on which animals are best suited for careers in the spotlight. “We are against people using their personal pets in movies,” notes Bouman. “Nor do we condone untrained animals being on set. There is a lot more work for the animals than people realize. … It can sometimes take two weeks to prep for a 30-second scene. Stress factors related to new sights and sounds and the necessity of having to perform a certain action on command can be overwhelming for dogs and cats who aren’t accustomed to these things.”
Bouman adds that most animals are selected for film, television, or print work based on very specific behavioral characteristics. “For example,” she says, “some horses enjoy intense running, which might make them ideal for a movie with scenes that require charging. Others might do better being shot by the cameras while they’re standing still in a corral.” She further explains that animal stars aren’t generally bred to be actors, but indicates that many are trained by professionals from a young age.
“Actually, 75 to 80 percent of the cats and dogs you see in films come from shelter situations and are adopted by a trainer,” Bouman says. “Benji is a particularly famous example. Such animals are then typically trained from the get-go.” Despite the AHA’s firm stance on not making longtime personal pets stars, not everyone echoes the exact same sentiments. And for those who do, the door still isn’t completely closed in regard to immortalizing their animals in movies.
In keeping with several of the ideas expressed by the AHA, Dibra completely advocates responsible animal guardianship and stresses that pets should never be forced to perform if such actions exceed their comfort level. He says, however, “I see each dog or cat as a diamond in the rough [who] needs a good trainer.” Dibra emphasizes that his book, Star Pet, offers hope to readers who are convinced that their animal might relish spending time in front of the camera. “What I advocate is determining a comfort level that works for people and their pets and not making careers goals or decisions that exceed that. Training is critical to figuring out what you and your pet want to do, how much you can do, and then doing it.”
For those guardians who believe that their animal companions have spunk and charisma but simply aren’t cut out for the day-to-day anxieties of posing and performing, there are other options available, including the “dogumentaries” produced by Videovampires inc. The New York City–based video marketing solutions company helps people develop personal tribute films of their pets. Such productions are meant to be primarily shared with friends and loved ones, as opposed to animal agents or Hollywood executives.
“Essentially, we allow any animal to star in [his or her] own short film,” explains owner, Elke Stappert. “No auditions are necessary, and there’s certainly no pressure to perform in any way. In fact, dogumentaries can be made without any shooting at all. We can take the [guardian’s] existing photos and animate and edit them into a short film that’s set to music.”
Stappert’s entrepreneurship is evidence that average people can make their pets stars, even if their paws ultimately aren’t imprinted outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. As for the animals who do work for Paramount and Touchstone, rest assured that they’re as talented and tireless in their efforts as Brad and Angelina.
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