Not Your Entertainment: Ethical Veganism and Performing Animals

By on October 8, 2014

People raved about the special effects in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which meant no actual apes were exploited, and maybe-veganish director Darren Arnofsky was outspoken about why he used almost no live animals in filming Noah. Praise be to CGI!

But there were live birds used in Noah, and live horses used in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and dogs appearing on Broadway, and all manner of performing animals used in entertainment today.

Vegans understand that there are ethical reasons to avoid the circus, the zoo, the rodeo, and animal abusement parks. We protest, we do outreach, we sign petitions, we’re clear that animal exploitainment for human amusement is wrong. Or are we?

Film critic Noah Gittell reviewed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for a recent Our Hen House podcast, and mentioned the battle scenes where the apes ride horses. After much conversation about the moral message of the film, he answered the hens’ bottom-line question – should ethical vegans see the film – with a resounding “it depends.” He felt it could be difficult for some animal lovers because the horses are used in a battle scene that includes a fair amount of disturbing stunts, falling down, and whatnot.

With all due respect to Gittell, and I mean that because I don’t know jack doodley squat about film critique, the answer is unequivocally no, because it uses performing animals. Whether the horses are falling down and playing dead, or happily dancing the cancan, doesn’t matter in the least. What stunts the script calls for, or the welfare of the animals while on the set, doesn’t matter in the least. How much the animal appears to consent to, or enjoy being exploited for, the audience doesn’t matter in the least.

I’m glad the apes are CGI, and so are my friends working in primate sanctuaries who care for former victims of the entertainment industry, but there is no ethical difference between exploiting apes and exploiting horses and exploiting dogs.

There is also no ethical difference between going to a circus or marine abusement park in which animals are exploited for entertainment, and going to a movie in which animals are exploited for entertainment. (There is one difference: in terms of dollars, Hollywood rakes in more money than theme parks all day long.)

Vegans do not use animals, and that includes not using animals for entertainment or recreation. We seem to be losing our grasp on this. We tend to feel strongly that it’s wrong to exploit charismatic megafauna like whales, dolphins, elephants, great apes, and sometimes big cats, but beyond those cases, it’s as if there is no longer any consensus that using animals for our amusement is wrong. Are we really having social-media arguments about whether or not riding horses is OK for a vegan? (It’s not. If you want to ride horses, do the rest of us a favor and don’t identify yourself as a vegan, because you’re going to confuse people about what values vegans hold. And also, apparently riding horses is the new honey.)

While mentoring new and aspiring vegans, we’ve encountered similar questions. Over on the FAQ page, we advise people to leave the theater and ask for a refund if they go to a movie that turns out to have animal performers. Extra bonus points if you contact the film studio and tell them you won’t support any of their products that exploit animals. Unfortunately I’m not aware of any organization that publicizes current film releases using animals, but it’s fairly easy to do some research online before you go to the theater.

I’m gravely disappointed when vegans I love and respect, who wouldn’t dare take their nieces or nephews to the zoo or Sea World, don’t seem to have a problem seeing the new Leo DiCaprio film co-starring a chimpanzee. It’s no inconvenience to simply buy a ticket for a different movie when you’re at the box office; it’s arguably more convenient than ordering a pizza without cheese in an Italian restaurant or finding a warm winter coat without wool.

Horses, dogs, birds, and all the rest have as much right not to be enslaved as the elephants at the zoo or the orcas in a tank. If you are vegan, avoiding the exploitation of animals for your entertainment, amusement, or recreation is possibly the easiest choice you’ll make every day.

My thanks to Rare Tee clothing’s “Not Your Entertainment” orca tank top for inspiring the title of this article.


  1. Robby
    October 8, 2014

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    “Riding horses is the new honey…” That’s a good line…pretty true these days…

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