Pets in Media

May 01, 2019

Nearly everything we do is influenced in some way by media and pop culture. It's just the world we live in. Animal welfare is no exception. Have you ever paid attention to the nuances and messages being portrayed in media regarding animals? If not, listen a little closer next time. Good or bad, there are certainly some clear stereotypes out there!

Issue: The Dog Catcher/Animal Shelter Stereotype
You're already picturing it, aren't you? Chance with his porcupine quill-covered face in Homeward Bound pleading, "Don't take me to the back room!" And also the dog catchers in the sequel, pictured below.
The sad, lonely jail-like shelter in Lady & the Tramp, with the "long walk" through the "one-way door." Even the video game that's being played in the live-action "101 Dalmatians" features a menacing dog catcher. Films as new as "The Secret Life of Pets" are guilty of the same unfair stereotype!

These types of seemingly innocent depictions have likely paved the way for generations of people to have preconceived notions about what Animal Control facilities do. While it may be true that lots of them used to be "impound" centers (which is where the term "dog pound" comes from), and while many of them used to or maybe even still have to euthanize a lot of their animals, that is not the way these facilities should be displayed in television and film. Animal Control facilities' jobs are to protect the animals and the people in their communities. That does sometimes involve the management of dangerous animals and the pickup of strays running at large. But in today's society, more often than not they focus on spay/neuter and adoption programs to humanely control the population instead of automatically "destroying" the animals they impound. The dog catcher stereotype teaches people, particularly children, that Animal Control officers are the animals' enemy. That they are heartless, dumb, and mean to harm the animal. And that no good can come from the dog pound. That dangerous rhetoric could not be further from the truth.

But there are positives! Thankfully, even in Homeward Bound, Chance was originally adopted from the local pound. And in the porcupine scene, the Animal Control staff were not in fact taking him to the "back room" but trying to help remove the porcupine quills from his face. In Lilo & Stitch, Nani and Lilo adopt Stitch from a shelter.

Issue: The Popular Dog Breed
In the 40's, it was Collies after Lassie.
In the 1950's? OId English Sheepdogs after The Shaggy Dog's release in 1959. (Accompanied by Peter Pan before it in 1953, and Mary Poppins afterward in 1964.)
The 60's brought 101 Dalmatians (the original) resulting in a huge uptick in Dalmatian AKC registrations.

In the late 80's and 90's, it was Golden Retrievers (E.T., Homeward Bound, Air Bud) and Saint Bernards (Beethoven). 
The 2000's began the resurgence of Northern breed popularity -- Huskies & Malamutes -- after Snow Dogs, Eight Below, and most recently, Game of Thrones.
And some say that the Chihuahua boom of the 2000's may have also been in large part due to films like Legally Blonde and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Taco Bell's "Yo Quiero" commercials around the same time could also easily be a contributing factor.

According to a 2014 study from three college professors, "the release of movies featuring dogs is often associated with an increase in the popularity of featured breeds, for up to 10 years after movie release." They used American Kennel Club breed registrations to determine "popularity." 

Now this isn't necessarily a bad thing... until the breed becomes so popular that they begin to flow into the shelter system from people who did not do research on the breed beforehand. For the VHS specifically, we see this a lot with Siberian Huskies/Malamutes. They are a particularly difficult breed to own for the average dog owner. When we do get them, people are clamoring to adopt, but they are not always easy placements!

The aforementioned study also found that other factors did not affect breed popularity nearly as much as media. Celebrity dogs, such as Madonna's Chihuahua, and whatever breed wins televised dog shows on any given year, have almost no effect.

Issue: Dog Breed Discrimination & Bias
You knew pit bulls were going to come up at some point.

It's no secret that from an anecdotal perspective, the media is most likely the single largest source of bias against pit bull-type dogs. This comes both from news reporting agencies and film/television.

Look at any news story regarding a dog "mauling" someone. More often than not, the breed listed is a pit bull. Even when the breed is listed, there are rarely pictures of the dog included, and we all know that "pit bull" is not an actual breed but an umbrella term for combinations of breeds or referring to any one breed that looks a certain way, such as American Pit Bull Terrier or American Staffordshire Terrier. The news stories also rarely mention whether or not the dog was spayed or neutered (which is arguably the most important factor!) and the dog's origin, whether from a shelter or a breeder, and if a behavioral evaluation was ever performed.

In television & film, look at all the aggressive representation of bully breeds. In the first Harry Potter film, of all the types of dogs that could've been selected to depict the three-headed Fluffy, a pit bull-type head was selected! 

In the 70's, 80's and even 90's, most aggressive dogs or "guard dogs" in movies tended to be cast as Rottweilers or Doberman Pinschers. For Dobermans, think Father of the Bride, America's Sweethearts, Raising Arizona, Oliver & Company, some Resident Evil films, The Boys from Brazil, Suburbia, Disney's Up, and even others mentioned in this blog regarding other breeds -- Beethoven and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. (There are some positive depictions though, such as It Shouldn't Happen to A Dog and Eyes of an Angel.)

With Rottweilers, it was The Omen, Dogs of Hell, Man's Best Friend, and Play Dead. 

All three of these breeds or groups of breeds, among others, are almost always included in lists of banned breeds for insurance policies and rental properties/apartment complexes. Here in Evansville, almost every single apartment complex bans all three of these breeds. It's hard to determine whether the chicken or the egg came first. Were these breeds outlawed and then movies were made about how aggressive they were, or were discriminatory policies put in place because of television and film's depictions of the dogs?

Issue: Shelter Pet Representation
The VHS makes sure that we intentionally feature realistic types of dogs in all of our promotional materials, vehicle wraps, and advertising. We see far more mixed breeds than anything else. Yet when you do a Google Image search for dogs and cats, the very first images that pop up (at the time of this blog) are purebred French Bulldogs & Golden Retrievers, or Siamese & Russian Blue cats. A search for "puppy" brings up a page littered with Golden Retriever puppies straight out of a Budweiser commercial. (See? Media!) Pay attention to the types of animals you see in the media that you and your kids absorb.

Issue: Exotic Pet Trade

This problem isn't just limited to dogs & cats. The sale of terrapin turtles skyrocketed in the 1980's after the release of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle films. Clownfish and blue tang faced a similar dilemma after the release of Finding Nemo/Finding Dory. You get the idea. Take advantage of the educational opportunities when your kiddo exclaims, "I want a Nemo!!!"