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“No animals were harmed in the making of this feature.”

August 5, 2016

We’ve all noticed that TV and film features are often announced with the warning that they “may contain scenes which some viewers may find upsetting.”


This incredibly useless comment is designed to do nothing except acknowledge that different people have decidedly different sensitivities – for whatever this acknowledgement is worth. But it is incomplete. I have never watched an advert that warned me that it contained scenes of dismembered animal parts.

For the majority of people, there is no significance to the pork chop on the plate. Yet, show the same people a pig’s head with an apple shoved in its mouth, and many will be repulsed.

For the most part, those wishing to sell a product or create an appealing quality avoid graphic representations of animal death and butchery, but for people properly engaged with the reality of meat-eating, this is not enough. A steak may not look like a cow, but there is no getting around the fact that it is, and we all know it. Surely, it is the reality that matters, not the visual representation.

Imagine that you watched a film with a real dismembered human arm in it. You later discover that someone was actually killed for that arm, because some weirdo felt like that was important for his art. Your disgust would be understandable. What would not be so understandable is if your disgust was reserved only for the fact that you had seen the arm, and not for the fact that a person had been murdered in order to get it.

This is one of many discrepancies in the way we perceive animal death, versus human death; human death is always bad, and animal death is fine as long as you don’t have to watch it. There will never be any justifiable reason for that; it is just an inconsistency.

Saying that we need to kill animals to live is demonstrably untrue, just as it is demonstrably untrue that a society has to smite all its differently ethnic neighbours in order to be guaranteed peace – yet that was the sort of thing our ancestors thought. Our change in perception of human life and its value is a sign of our moral advancement. Our lack of change in perception of non-human animal life and its value is a sign that there’s still work to be done.

Animal killing is woven into the fabric of our society strongly enough that we do not question it when it is casually presented to us in art. In film and TV, animal butchery is real. It is not fake. Those are not plastic dead animals being mauled around, but you can be sure that if real dead humans were subject to the same treatment, we would be disgusted. We may just about make exceptions for real-life autopsy and news footage, but even these often involve sanitisation, since such graphic images are thought to be naturally upsetting.

For animals this is rarely the case. Indeed, in a meat-eating society, censoring animal death would take hypocrisy to too obvious a level; meat-eating society does at least like to pretend it fully comprehends the impact of its collective choice. Yet, occasionally, if a dog must be autopsied (because it had rabies, for example), the dog is blurred; presumably, sensitivity to suffering and death also applies to designated pet-animals, which in many ways are honorary humans.

Whatever you feel about that differentiation, the fact remains that animal butchery in fiction is real, as is the occasional spot of animal killing. Often, you are specifically told that no animals were harmed in the making of the feature – something which never has to be said of humans. We assume no human was harmed (seriously, or against their will) in the making of a feature, but we cannot assume this about animals because they are not granted the right to life.

Again, there is a pet-animal, function-animal inconsistency, here; “no animals were harmed” does not include the bacon often frequently visible on the breakfast plates. If it’s already dead and bought, it doesn’t count, even though the buying contributes to the industry that kills more in order to keep up with the demand demonstrated by the act of purchase. Moreover, film food is frequently wasted, and bought again for new takes of the same scene.

It’s another one of those conventions I wonder would be missed if it disappeared. A vegetarian notices meat on the dinner table in fiction. To what extent does a meat-eater notice its absence? I don’t think I will ever sit with someone through a movie, and at the end, hear them say: “You know, it’s weird. Throughout that entire movie, there wasn’t one piece of bacon!”

Such forms of realism we can probably forgo. It’s not as if anyone actually eats in films. They sort of fork their food around and then storm off when Something Happens. You might as well serve them bricks for dinner. Who knows if there would be any impact from ceasing to present animal products as an unquestioned part of society, but the part of society that currently cares would certainly notice. Besides which, film-makers would save a fortune in wasted bacon.

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