From 'Born Free' to Cecil the lion: Hollywood's impact on animal rights

Films and celebrities can serve both as change agents and as advocates for meaningful animal rights improvements, say experts. 

Courtesy of Forrest Galante
Celebrity wildlife biologist Forrest Galante took this picture of Cecil the lion 2011. Films and celebrities can serve both as change agents and as advocates for meaningful animal rights improvements, say experts.
Courtesy of the Born Free Foundation
Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers star in the 1961 film 'Born Free.'

Animal rights activists calling for criminal charges after the death of Cecil the lion are leaning on public love of lions, in part a legacy of the 1966 film "Born Free." 

Today, many are demanding the prosecution of Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer, who is accused of illegally killing Cecil, a famous and protected lion, on a $50,000 hunt in Zimbabwe.

"Walter Palmer should be tried and prosecuted for the poaching of Cecil, and banned from ever hunting in Africa again," writes Forrest Galante, a celebrity wildlife biologist who grew up in Zimbabwe. 

Mr. Galante recalls watching and being moved by the film "Born Free" as a child, while working in his family’s safari business. "I personally knew Cecil the lion and he was a national treasure to my home country of Zimbabwe," he writes in an email to the Monitor. "Cecil was known as a large and magnificent lion at the age of 13. These actions are barbaric and border on homicidal."

He adds, "As someone who knows the country and the safari industry, I can assure you that Palmer was well aware of this animal’s status before he killed it. Cecil was collared when he was shot, and part of an ongoing conservation study.... I am sure he was able to see the collar when he pulled the trigger."

Animal lovers are also in tears over the death of Kipenzi, a baby giraffe who broke her neck at the Dallas Zoo on Tuesday, in an accident inside her enclosure. Kipenzi’s birth in April was viewed by more than 3 million people via Animal Planet.

Amidst of the dual tragedies came the news that the Humane Society has won the battle to end Nepal's Gadhimai festival, the world's biggest mass animal sacrifice event held every five years for the past 265 years.

The decision, announced by the Gadhimai Temple Trust, is in direct response to campaigning by Animal Welfare Network Nepal, Humane Society International/India, and celebrities, all condemning these ritual animal deaths.

"Humane Society International does work a lot with a good many celebrities for a range of our campaigns," writes Wendy Higgins, EU communications director for Humane Society International/UK.

"Ricky Gervais, for example, is a very outspoken supporter of HSI, as [are] Leona Lewis, Ke$ha, Ian Somerhelder, and others. They can be powerful allies for us in that they reach very large and broad audiences, particularly on social media," she writes in an email.

"Film and TV can both be very effective in bringing about social change. Films like 'Born Free' will always have a special place in my heart, and here in the UK I have been lucky enough to work alongside actress [and star of 'Born Free'] Virginia McKenna on animal protection issues," writes Ms. Higgins.

"Born Free" (1966) tells the story of senior Kenyan game warden George Adamson and his wife Joy, who raise lion cubs after George shoots a man-eating lion and its mate. The cubs are raised as family members, and when they reach maturity, rather than send the domesticated big cats to a zoo, the Adamsons struggle to teach the cubs to survive in the wild.

Today, the Born Free Foundation’s mission is to end the suffering of wild animals in captivity, rescue individual animals in need, protect wildlife in their natural habitats, and encourage compassionate conservation globally via litigation, investigation, and public education.

"There’s the lasting legacy of the film. I can’t go anywhere, especially in America, where people don’t know the film and start singing the theme song by John Barry," says Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA and the Born Free Foundation, in an interview. "There’s something serious about the message of freedom and being a wild animal allowed to live in the wild that clearly resonates with people and has resonated in a lasting way."

According to Mr. Roberts, the Born Free Foundation has been campaigning to list the African lion as "Threatened" under the US Endangered Species Act, which would almost completely stop imports of lion trophies such as Cecil's head.

Roberts and others credit the 1966 film with today’s social awareness and growing animal rights campaign successes.

"In terms of practical impact," says Roberts, the film is responsible for "the wholesale change in the last half century of how people look at captivity – recognizing that wild animals, especially those born in the wild, are meant to live in the wild."

He adds, "It’s changed the way we look at zoos and circuses and exotic animals as pets."

The Humane Society's Higgins writes, "With so many of our wild species in Africa and beyond now endangered through poaching and habitat loss, perhaps Born Free is even more poignant today. We've also seen the emergence of some truly powerful documentary films such as BlackFish, Cowspiracy, and The Cove which rightly challenge us to look at the miserable life of confinement and deprivation from the animal's point of view, and to reassess our attitudes to the use of animals in entertainment and the food industry."

She adds, "These films have reached massive global audiences ... and sparked much-needed debate about the rights of sentient creatures not to be exploited or subjected to cruelty. I think these movies are particularly important in engaging a new generation of young people in the animal rights agenda.”

Roberts says, "Now there’s no excuse for caging animals for human entertainment, because with film and the internet there’s so much more opportunity for reaching the captive attention of humans than keeping animals in captivity."

To that end, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) offers a virtual reality tour with iOrca and iChicken virtual goggles that allow people to experience life in captivity, says Lisa Lange, senior vice president of PETA in Los Angeles.

"By using the Google Cardboard headset, we can put the virtual reality experience right in people’s hands," she says in an interview. "It’s a much better experience for people to help them really understand what the animals are experiencing than going to Sea World or the zoo or circus.”

PETA has also created a list of the most powerful animal films, such as "Blackfish," "Babe," "Charlotte's Web," "Chicken Run," and "Free Willy."

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