Yesterday, I attended the SAFE event at the Auckland Museum entitled ‘Speaking for Animals on Show‘, set up for the purpose of launching the group’s newest educational initiative: the Animals on Show resource, the third in the Animals and Us series of resources designed to reach secondary school students and encourage their interest in human-animal studies.
The event itself was very well put together, and had three notable speakers: (1) Jeffrey Masson, Auckland based author on animal issues who spoke on animal emotions and the importance of respecting animal needs in making decisions about them; (2) Nichola Kriek, SAFE’s education officer, who was the co-creator of the Animals on Show resource and talked about how it was developed and its purpose, and (3) Michael Apted, Hollywood director of Gorillas in the Mist and other notable films.
The presentations were extremely interesting, but the highlight was undoubtedly Apted, who spoke of his experiences in filming Gorillas in the Mist, and the challenges of working with wild animals. It’s notable that when Hollywood first talked about making this film, there was a move to use chimpanzees instead of gorillas, and actually train the chimps into using gorilla ‘suits’. Apted talked about actually visiting the ‘training facility’ – which was established before he was brought onto the project – and the horror of seeing what was going on. He immediately shut down this plan, and decided instead to film entirely in the wild. A short film showed us the making of Gorillas in the Mist, and set the scene. The amazing visuals shot for that movie – which is well worth seeing – were shot in a natural setting, with no lights or props. Just a camera, a director, an actor (Sigourney Weaver), a local guide, and lots of wild mountain gorillas. Essentially, the plan was to shoot the gorillas in their natural setting, with as many interactions as possible, and subsequently build the movie around it! Apted spoke about how he and Weaver were overwhelmed by the experience, and how it helped turn him into an animal advocate.
I was very impressed. As I’ve indicated in a previous post, I think we need strong advocates for the ‘animal friendly’ perspective in every setting, and Apted seemed genuinely interested in the cause. It was certainly great of him to come over (during a break from filming in Queensland) and lend his gravitas to the SAFE event, which was very well received.
If there was anything that troubled me even slightly, it was his response to my question, posed during a public Q & A after the speech, about whether Hollywood has made progress in this area, and whether he would ever feel conflicted about working with trained animals. His response was that Hollywood has made tremendous strides in this area, and that cruelty to animals on set would never be tolerated today. Seems to me that the response either misunderstood my question, or missed the point. The problem with trained animals today lies not on the set, that’s for sure. I have little doubt that good Hollywood films spend a lot of money to ensure that animals they use are not harmed, and I think there is a case to be made that some animals can be placed in films in a way that’s acceptable to anyone but the most ardent proponent of non-animal use (the use of dogs in some cases, for example, does not particularly bother me, so long as the use is well-monitored). But there are animal uses that should trouble all of us – especially involving primates, who are Hollywood favourite – and the problem lies not on set, but in the obtaining of these animals and the training process beforehand (for example, consider recent movie, The Hangover, and the use of a tiger therein). Check out this article from the ALDF, which sets out in some detail the evils of primate use in Hollywood, and the horrors required to get an animal ready to ‘act’. Struck me as at least a little bit troubling that Apted seemed unbothered by the problem, focusing narrowly on the on-set use instead of where the real harm lies.
Nonetheless, that was a minor quibble about a fantastic event, and shouldn’t diminish from the overall tone and theme. Also worth noting is the way in which SAFE is continuing to ‘up the ante’ in terms of professionalism in advancing animal causes. It’s not just about street protests anymore. The organisation recognizes that rendering its message acceptable and bringing new allies on board is an essential part of advocacy in the 21st century. This was SAFE’s second major event at the Museum this year, following on its spectacular fundraising function that focused on the Lovepigs campaign in July.
Finally, a word about the reason for the event itself. The Animals and Us campaign may wind up being SAFE’s biggest and most valuable contribution to animals in the long term. These slickly packaged resources are simply phenomenal. I have copies in my office, and can tell you they are ingenious, designed carefully to comply with NZ curriculum requirements and get young people to think hard about animal-human issues. At the launch, Nichola Kriek talked about the success SAFE’s been having with the resource – and soaked in some well-deserved applause. As many animal advocates have noted, changing the industrial complex surrounding meat and dairy is going to be a long-term process, and reaching young people and showing them how animals are treated, and getting them to think about why it’s wrong, is critical.
Congratulations to SAFE – both for a great event, and a superb resource.