Animal welfare issues get a helping hand from Hollywood

The opening of Rise of the Planet of the Apes earlier this month gave a much-needed boost to the work of individuals and organizations raising awareness about the perils of animal testing for both animals and humans. In addition to providing a gripping plot, stunning special effects (most of the scenes involving primates were digitally generated), and an engaging, sympathetic protagonist in the form of a precocious chimpanzee named Caesar, Apes serves as both a cautionary tale and an invitation to deepen our understanding of primate intelligence and social structure.

Advocacy work on behalf of primates and other victims of animal testing is nothing new. Conservation superstar Jane Goodall has devoted more than 50 years of her life to the protection and study of chimpanzees in their natural habitats. Many well-known animal welfare organizations focus on animal experimentation—particularly as executed on primates, who are among the most frequent subjects—as a critical issue, and have dedicated areas on their Web sites on this topic, including the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Even organizations whose entire mission revolves around curtailing animal experimentation have long been in existence, including the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which capitalized on the Apes release for its “Real Planet of the Apes” campaign, and the New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS), which has undertaken a special initiative for the Release and Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboartories. One of the world’s most prestigious medical schools, Johns Hopkins University, established its Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing in 1981—three decades ago. Even so, the issue has remained largely under the radar in the mainstream public consciousness.

Thanks to the vision and talents of the Apes team, that may no longer be the case. With the film ranking #1 in the box office on both weekends following its opening, the twin issues of animal experimentation and primate exploitation have been placed squarely before well over a million viewers and counting—undoubtedly including many who might not otherwise give much thought to animal welfare or the way medical research is conducted. Few documentaries ever attain this kind of reach or visibility for their subjects. This “educate ’em a little, entertain ’em a lot” model presents a golden opportunity for animal welfare organizations to advance their work by encouraging the public to take the film’s messages to the next level.

This naturally leads to the question of how to effectively fund efforts to curtail animal experimentation. Beyond individual donors, relatively few entities exist that make grants solely for this purpose, but the good news is that money is in fact available from foundations that promote animal welfare more broadly. One of the most effective strategies to track down these sources is to consult the Foundation Center’s Foundation Directory Online, available for free use in the Center’s regional library/learning centers and Cooperating Collections, or via subscription. In addition to exploring the grantmaker database, a search of the grants database may be even more fruitful. Entering an organization such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine or the Jane Goodall Institute into the grant recipient field produces a list of donors whose in-depth profiles, guidelines, and Web sites can advise you regarding specific funding interests.

And if you’re a filmmaker working on a movie that places animal welfare in the spotlight, check out my earlier post, “Advocating for animals through film…and finding the resources to do it.”

[7/9/13 UPDATE: Less than two years since the “Apes” release in theaters, major strides have been taken towards improving chimpanzee welfare. An article in today’s New York Times called “Unlikely Partners, Freeing Chimps from the Lab” describes two monumental developments: 1) The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s recent proposal that all chimps be classified as “endangered” rather than “threatened,” which would largely prohibit their use in labs, and 2) The National Institutes of Health’s intent to retire the overwhelming majority of its lab chimps to sanctuaries within the next few years. While this victory is not complete as some chimps remain unprotected, it constitutes a giant leap forward for animal welfare advocacy. So close on the heels of when “Apes” first brought its potent mix of spectacular entertainment and incisive commentary to the big screen, I’m left to wonder: Do strong films help to drive social change, or do they merely reflect a significant shift in public consciousness that’s already taken place? Perhaps in this case, it’s a bit of both.]