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Animals in entertainment: ‘Things may look worse than they are, but could they also be as bad as they look?’

02 Dec 2020 | Steve Smith


Zoo and wildlife veterinary specialist, Steve Smith explains when and how there is a place for animals in entertainment but why ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’ may not be it.

Animals in entertainment: ‘Things may look worse than they are, but could they also be as bad as they look?’ Image

The familiar beat of those drums is a widely recognised (and perhaps subliminal) marketing campaign that we have heard on our screens for the almost 20 years. Whatever your views, I’m a celebrity....get me out of here is a very popular ITV production that draws in 9 million viewers and is currently broadcasting its 20th series from Gwrych Castle in North Wales. This is a lucrative franchise with a very large base of public support, generating a significant socio-economic impact. We all need a bit of light relief during this current pandemic but some of us have niggling, uneasy reservations and concerns about how animals are used in the pursuit of entertainment in this production.

Animals in entertainment

Let me be clear, I strongly believe animals have an important role in the entertainment industry. CGI is amazing these days, but it cannot replicate the feelings and engagement generated by seeing a real animal on screen. I have experience working with many different media organisations, theatre groups, advertising companies, animal welfare organisations, individual artists and feature film productions. My role is always to safeguarding the welfare of animals used and I am no stranger to the pressures of high-profile, big budget productions.

The problem with ‘I’m a Celebrity’..

Despite the popularity of I’m a Celeb, it has a chequered history with animal welfare. There have been controversies over killing of wildlife, eating live insects and concerns about the legal and ethical aspects of their use of animals. The previous 19 series have been shot in Australia, so it has been difficult to have input into the animal welfare element of the show. With the move to Wales, this provided an excellent opportunity to engage with vets and animal welfare groups in the UK and create a production that demonstrates high animal welfare standards.

Sadly, this has not come to fruition. The program has reportedly been very guarded about communication with animal welfare groups or veterinary organisations. I have seen some of the trials involving animals and, with my vet-on-set hat on, there are some potential causes for concern. Occasionally some of the animals appear to have lesions or sores – are they under treatment already? Did they have to use those particular individuals? In a cage of “200” spiders – how many dead ones did you notice. Is this just a normal variation or is this because too many spiders are bring unnaturally kept together? When someone is crawling over snakes or toads – are they in any danger? What if the contestant panics and kneels or treads on one of them – or is a three-minute challenge shot in 15 takes over a period of an hour – carefully making sure no animals are ever put at risk. Also, the latest concern is whether non-native species are being released into the Welsh countryside. Also, whilst only vertebrate animals are protected by the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, this does not mean members of the public don’t care about the treatment and unnecessary death of invertebrates.

Is everything what it seems?

Optics are everything in media and this could not be more true for the use of animals in entertainment. Sometimes something that looks bad, may not actually be bad, but you have to think twice before filming or broadcasting it. For example, a dog stealing a fake Christmas pudding is not risky, but the audience doesn’t know it’s fake. They may be concerned the dog will get raisin toxicity or may think it’s fine to feed their own dog Christmas pudding. You have to think whether the same shot or message can be delivered in a different way.

This is my main reservation with I’m a Celeb; things may look worse than they are, but they could also be as bad as they look. You have to consider appropriate provision (and depiction) of the 5 freedoms for the animals used. We have to ensure they have an appropriate environment, suitable diet, are provided with behavioural and social needs and are free from suffering. By simply viewing what is broadcast, it is hard to be entirely comfortable that this is being done.

Having a vet on set

If there was a vet present, or an animal welfare organisation such as the American Humane Society, then this would serve two purposes. Those of us with concerns about what is being broadcast would have a way to seek an independent opinion on what is really happening, how/why it occurred, and what safety measures and precautions were taken. Secondly, the vet or animal welfare representative could make suggestions about certain elements – improving animal safeguarding, whilst also improving the optics for the show. Everyone benefits.

Most animal trainers I have worked with are professional, skilled and caring towards their animals and would be the first to ensure no harm or stress came to them. My role as a vet on set is to work with them and to be an additional safeguard and animal welfare advocate (as well as very rarely providing first aid if accidents do happen). I also make sure the action is suitable and does not present unnecessary risk to the animal.

So, as a vet who regularly works in the entertainment industry, I congratulate all the media companies with a pro-active and open approach to the safety of animals used in their productions.

To ITV productions and I’m a Celeb, some members of our profession have genuine concerns. Please reach out and engage with us; engage with BVA; engage with veterinary or animal welfare professionals; and develop an open dialogue and relationship. I think it is much more constructive for us to work together and you can then show that you do care responsibly for all your animals.


Steve Smith

BVetMed (Hons.), CertZooMed, DipECZM (Avian), MRCVS
EBVS European Specialist in Avian Medicine and Surgery
RCVS Recognised Specialist in Zoo and Wildlife Medicine


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