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Hollywood Office "ACE's" Set of Animal Films

HSUS program funds films highlighting animal welfare issues such as exotic pet ownership

  • The Tiger Next Door examines problems with exotic pet ownership. John Roca/Daily News

  • Approximately 5,000-7,000 tigers are owned privately in the U.S.

  • Private ownership of wild animals as pets is dangerous to people and inhumane to animals. Michael Webber

by Mike Satchell

In something of a harmonic Hollywood convergence, three animal-themed documentary movies that have earned The HSUS recognition for excellence are drawing favorable attention and exposure against the backdrop of the 24th Annual Genesis Awards scheduled for March 20 in Beverly Hills, Calif. Two films focus on the growing epidemic of keeping dangerous wild animals as pets, and the third examines the controversial use of primates in entertainment.

The Elephant in the Living Room was the 2008 winner of a $25,000 grant from The HSUS’s Animal Content in Entertainment (ACE) program. Managed by The HSUS's Hollywood office, ACE encourages the inclusion of animal issues in non-fiction and narrative entertainment media.

The film premiered in February to critical acclaim at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and recently received the Director’s Choice Award for Best Independent Documentary at the Sedona International Film Festival. A television series based on the film is already in production, and The National Geographic Channel, A&E and Animal Planet have expressed interest. 

Elephant tells the story of America’s growing fad for making pets of big cats, poisonous and constrictor snakes, chimpanzees, and other exotic animals who can kill or severely injure humans. As many as 15,000 lions, tigers and cougars may be kept as pets or as roadside zoo attractions in the U.S. The film contends that there are more tigers in private hands than remain in the wilds of Asia. The HSUS estimates that approximately 5,000-7,000 tigers are owned privately in the U.S.

The 2008 HSUS/ACE award runner-up was The Tiger Next Door. On March 25, Animal Planet will premiere a one-hour special presentation of the documentary. (The full feature length (86min) documentary will be released in the U.S. on DVD that same day.) This film focuses on an Indiana man who kept 24 tigers, six leopards, three bears and a cougar in his backyard until local authorities stepped in.

The airing of The Tiger Next Door on Animal Planet coincides with another program that showcases the work of The HSUS. In January 2010, The HSUS’s Animal Cruelty and Fighting campaign was featured prominently in the one-hour production of Animal Planet Investigates: Dog Fighting Exposed that drew very high ratings. In the May installment of Animal Planet Investigates, The HSUS’s offensive against puppy mills will be profiled, and production begins in March for an installment on captive or “canned” hunting.

Cinema Chimp, which won The HSUS's ACE feature documentary film grant in 2009, examines the sometimes bizarre lifestyle of Cheeta, a chimpanzee who was a film and television “actor.” The film explores the ethics of using young primates in entertainment. By the age of six or seven years, chimpanzees and orangutans can become dangerous and unmanageable unless taken care of by experts and housed in a proper environment, such as a reputable sanctuary. After brief showbiz “careers,” they can spend their remaining 40 or 50 years in squalid roadside zoos, sideshow menageries or even in research laboratories.

Now wrapping up production, Cinema Chimp was chosen from more than 100 submissions from 11 countries and was awarded the $25,000 HSUS/ACE grant at the annual SilverDocs: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Film Festival in Silver Spring, Md.

In related news, two other animal-themed movies made big headlines this year. The Cove, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the March 7 Academy Awards, exposes the horrific annual slaughter of thousands of dolphins and porpoises by fisherman in the Japanese coastal town of Taiji.  Food, Inc. documents the pitiful and inhumane treatment of farm animals raised for food on industrialized factory farms in America.

“More and more creative professionals are finding compelling ways to bring the cause of animal welfare to audiences through broadcast, theatrical, and digital media platforms,” says ACE program director Ross Hammer. “What better partner for these projects than the nation’s largest animal protection organization.”

Mike Satchell is editor-at-large for The Humane Society of the United States.