Few people could watch the German Shepherd being forced into turbulent water on the video released by TMZ of the filming of “A Dog’s Purpose” and not be filled with anger, sadness, despair. The trainer’s repeated attempts to push the struggling Hercules into the water on set has resulted in the suspension of the safety representative from the American Humane Association and has caused an investigation by Manitoba’s Chief Veterinary Office.
Camile Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, a Toronto-based animal group, proclaimed that “It is illegal to inflict suffering and anxiety onto animals, and there is no loophole that lets Hollywood moviemakers get away with abusing animals on a film set.”
This is patently false. Gary Francione demonstrates, for example, how animal welfare laws exempt from them most forms of institutionalised property use, including the raising of animals for food. The American Humane Association does not patrol the catering vans on film sets making sure that no animal products are served, nor does it inspect or the wardrobe department for wool, leather, or fur. Yet animals used for food and for clothing are subject to tremendous harm, and all for reasons as unnecessary as that which convinced the crew on the set of “A Dog’s Purpose” that it would be perfectly acceptable to force a terrified dog into churning waters.
As a culture, we compartmentalise which forms of animal use we consider morally acceptable and unacceptable, even though there is no moral difference between them. Leather is acceptable, but fur is commonly deemed to be unacceptable; yet leather as an object is structurally similar to fur, but with the hair removed. Cow meat is acceptable, but dog meat is unacceptable; yet both species have preferences, can experience pain and pleasure, and have interests in continued existence. It is acceptable to force birds and pigs into tanks of scalding water, often while still alive, due to improper stunning, to remove feathers or hair; it is unacceptable to force dogs into warm water for the purposes of entertainment in a film that relies on dogs being used as unwilling actors. When animal groups like PeTA, therefore, call for boycotts of such films on the grounds of the treatment of one species, they are reinforcing this compartmentalisation and further embedding the moral confusion that gives people leave to tweet against the film while tucking into their chicken salad sandwiches.
We all recognise that Hercules has morally significant interests: those interests are evident in his apparent distress and his evident desire not to enter the water. And let’s be clear: he should not have had to undergo that terror. But nor should the animals consumed on set or worn on people’s bodies have to undergo the terror that ends their lives of exploitation either. We clearly prefer some species over others, but not enough to completely abstain from using those animals we say we prefer.
If we recognise that Hercules matters morally, then we have no good reason for excluding other animals from our circles of moral concern. We cannot say that it is acceptable to use some animals but not others once we recognise that their sentience is enough of a reason for us not to treat them as things. If a dog matters, then a cow matters. And if we recognise that and still don’t go vegan, then we’re saying that animals matter but acting like they don’t.