Among animal lovers and advocates, the use of domestic animals in film has long been a murky area of debate. Unlike circuses and marine parks, from which audiences appear to be increasingly turning away, film productions have commonly been assumed to be different — better for animals.

Part of that assumption is rooted in the authority of the American Humane association (AH), which provides the "No Animals Were Harmed" stamp of approval for film and television shows. To most viewers, that certification means that high welfare standards and strict protocols — including the presence of a dedicated representative on set — have kept animal "actors" safe.

Yet despite their favoured reputation, film productions still share their fundamental purpose with exploitative circuses and marine parks: to make money. When animals are used to generate profit for humans, their welfare simply cannot be — and is not — considered a top priority.

Calls for boycott

Time is money, as they say on set. That might explain the video, obtained by TMZ, of a fearful-looking dog being placed in turbulent water — ostensibly before he was ready — on the set of A Dog's Purpose, which was filmed in Manitoba. The clip of the incident, where the dog, Hercules, later becomes submerged, went viral online and provoked calls to boycott the film ahead of its now-cancelled premiere.  

Whether or not the video depicts animal abuse is to some, subjective. The film's producer and distributor released a joint statement that: "While we are all disheartened by the appearance of an animal in distress, everyone has assured us that Hercules the German shepherd was not harmed throughout the filmmaking." Nevertheless, to anyone who has seen the footage, it's clear that Hercules endures a visible degree of stress as he resists his trainer, unwilling to go into the water on his own.  

Winnipeg Humane Society CEO Javier Schwersensky has commented on the incident, saying, "This dog was fearful and not properly trained for this experience." But how, exactly, does one train an animal to become acclimatized to loud, turbulent water capable of sucking him under? And even if an animal can be prepared for such a stunt, there is undoubtedly stress to be suffered at some point — and for what? Or more importantly, for whom?

None of this is of any benefit to the dog. Hercules is not actually a working "actor," as industry jargon would have us believe. He's not a willing participant. He doesn't need to make a living. Hercules is simply there as property of Birds & Animals Unlimited, a company that trains and supplies animals for films. He is making money for them, and for the production, at the expense of his own comfort and security. That is the definition of exploitation.

Animals have been harmed and killed on sets since the beginning of film. It was as a result of early cases that the AH's Safe Use of Animals in Filmed Media came to be. However, even with the AH's ever-evolving standards, there have continued to be incidents of animals allegedly harmed and killed, cases that include the death of 27 animals during the 2012 production of The Hobbit, the near drowning of a Bengal tiger on the set of Life of Pi and a husky reportedly being punched by a trainer on the set of Eight Below in 2006.

A 2013 in-depth investigation of the AH by The Hollywood Reporter details the group's questionable practices: from routinely kowtowing to filmmaker pressure, pushing animals to perform, to inaccurately reporting incidences and skewing safety ratings. "The AH frequently touts a 99.98 per cent safety rating — meaning, almost 100 per cent of the animals they monitor are not harmed," states the report. "But the AH's internal critics insist the number is farcical, with no real statistical grounding. They claim the aggregate overall ratio is purposefully inflated by the inclusion of high volumes of impossible-to-count insects."

What happens when the camera's off?

This is the group we are entrusting to be the voice for the voiceless, to shout "stop" when an animal is in danger or too stressed to press on. It appears that on the set of A Dog's Purpose, this duty was not fulfilled. How often do these things happen away from the lens of a smartphone camera?  

Just as audiences are becoming aware of the truth behind animal exploitation in other entertainment venues, so too should we recognize the welfare of animals used in film. There is no right way to profit off of beings unable to consent or benefit, especially not for a purpose as petty and unnecessary as entertainment.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.