Reports of animal abuse in the entertainment industry question the legal protections of animal actors. Currently, no federal or state law specifically governs the use of animals in filmed media. However, the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) and the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) as well as state cruelty laws and state animal cruelty depiction laws indirectly apply to animal actors. The only regulation directly protecting animal actors is the industry-based American Humane Association’s (AHA) guidelines.
Enacted to protect animals exhibited to the public, the AWA regulates “exhibitors.” An exhibitor is any person exhibiting any animal to the public for compensation. It is clear that private parties renting animals to film studios meet this definition. Additionally, it can be argued that film producers may meet this definition but neither case law nor any statute explicitly states this theory. Only those movie producers who own, or transport and receive remuneration for the animal actors, seem to constitute “exhibitors.”
The AWA require such “exhibitors” to obtain a license and may do so only if the facility is in compliance with all AWA standards and regulations. Such standards and regulations focus on housing, handling, sanitation, nutrition, water, veterinary care, and protection from extreme weather and temperatures. Once licensed, exhibitors must continue to comply with all AWA standards and regulations including recordkeeping, paying annual fees, inspecting, marking and identifying animals and complying with specified humane standards. However, the AWA does not protect all animals. In fact, only dogs, cats, primates, and other warm blooded animal actors are protected while cold-blooded animal actors, birds, rats, and mice are not.
Additionally, the ESA protects extinct or threatened animal actors. An “endangered species" is a species in danger of extinction while a threatened species is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future. Most importantly, the ESA makes it unlawful to “take” any endangered species within the United States. Taking means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.”
The many exceptions to the ESA significantly limit its reach. In fact, film producers may avoid the ESA through multiple avenues. First, the ESA grants the Secretary permission to issue enhancement of survival permits. These permits may allow parties to "take" endangered or threatened species for use in films that enhance the survival of the species. Second, for threatened species, the ESA does not expressly prohibit any activities. Rather, the ESA requires the agency to issue regulations that promote the conservation of threatened species. Although generally prohibiting the same activities as endangered species, special rules sometimes allow otherwise prohibited activities.
Similarly, at the state level, no laws directly target those abusing animal actors. Only general anti-cruelty laws and laws preventing the depiction of animal cruelty limitedly apply to animal actors. All states have laws preventing animal cruelty that generally apply to animals used in filmed media. These laws normally prevent individuals from intentionally inflicting substantial pain on any animal. These laws generally also cover animal neglect and consequently, penalize those that fail to provide their animals with necessary sustenance.
Unfortunately, such anti-cruelty laws are ineffective against those depicting animal cruelty in films since it is difficult to identify the individual in the film. In response, a select few states specifically criminalize the filming of animal cruelty including California, Illinois, and Maine. These laws prohibit individuals from knowingly creating, selling, marketing, possessing a film depicting animal cruelty.
Beyond these indirect legal protections, the Motion Picture Association of America directly addressed the problem of animal abuse in filmed media. They legally empowered the AHA to monitor how animals are treated in Screen Actors Guild movies, television, commercials, and music shows. Mainly, the AHA enforces a set of guidelines that producers must follow when using animal actors. Among other things, the AHA’s Guidelines for the Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media governs the following areas: general guidelines; veterinary care guidelines; guidelines for productions, cast, and crew; reality programming; costumes, makeup, rigging and props; location and/or set safety; special effects; stunts; and species-specific guidelines.
As a further protection, during filming, the AHA monitors all filming, advises production on safety issues; documents all animal action and care; and serves as an independent, professional, objective witness to the treatment and well-being of animal actors. After filming, the motion pictures reviews and rates each animal scene of the motion pictures as outstanding, acceptable, special circumstances, unacceptable, production complaint, and not monitored. If acceptable, the AHA grants permission for the motion picture to use the end credit disclaimer “No Animals Were Harmed.” Despite these guidelines, conflicts of interest, lack of enforcement, man-power issues, and the limited reach of the AHA severely hinder the ability of the AHA to properly protect animal actors.
In summary, the use of animals in film or television is not directly addressed by any federal or state law. Only the federal AWA and ESA as well as state cruelty laws and state animal cruelty depiction laws indirectly touch upon the issue. The only animal actor specific regulation is the industry-based AHA’s guidelines but the vast limitations indicate it may not be enough protection.