On June 7, 2016, during a preview production of Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, a live owl flew away from its handler and into the auditorium. The show’s producers have since decided to remove live animals from the production, a move that PETA commended.
People love looking at animals and watching them act. Everyone’s enjoyed a cat video and animals have been made to perform in circuses, magic shows, and even in ancient Greek theatre. But is it ok? Does it depend on the animal? How they’re treated?
The Winter 2015 issue of Dance International Magazine featured a piece about Luc Petton, a choreographer who’s used birds on stage since 2004, including herons in Light Bird and swans in Swan. From the videos on Luc Petton’s website, the dancers seem to imitate the birds or snuggle with them while holding food to encourage the bird to follow them. While it’s beautiful and intriguing to see dancers interact with the animals, the videos also provoked a pause.
In The Greatest Monkey Show on Earth, which was part of the 2014 Vancouver Fringe Festival, Ross Travis portrays a circus monkey. The show, which won the inaugural Artistic Risk Award, brought the question of animal performance to the fore—and particularly the treatment of such animals when they don’t want to perform.
Jenni Rempel, former host and producer of Animal Voices on Co-op Radio, spoke to us about the use of animals on stage. “Treatment is important. It is often the biggest injustice involved with animal entertainment,” she points out. “People don’t think about where the animal slept, how it was transported, how it was trained, and how often it gets to eat.”
But what if the animals are treated well and the trainers support organizations that promote adoption and welfare? William Berloni won a Tony Award in 2011 “in recognition of his extraordinary dedication to training rescued animals for the stage, with abundant creativity and exemplifying the highest principles of humane behavior.” Berloni is probably best known for training Sandy, the dog who appeared in Annie from 1977-83 in 2,377 performances. He is also the Behavior Consultant for the Humane Society of New York, a no-kill shelter, and the driver behind The Sandy Fund (in honor of the aforementioned dog Sandy), which has provided “tens of thousands of dollars” for rescued animals.
“There are lots of ways to raise awareness about adoption and animal issues. I think exploiting animals in the process is counterproductive,” Jenni Rempel says. “It doesn’t make sense and actually enforces the idea that animals are here purely to serve us.”
While the owls in Harry Potter were cared for on set by a veterinary surgeon and a team of certified trainers, having animals on stage brings up many questions—from the logistics of working with animals to their welfare. The Guardian explored this question after PETA objected to the use of a goldfish on stage in a revival of Richard III.
What do you think? Are there lines? What are they?