I’m an ethical vegan and an animal rights activist, so my stance on the narrative in documentaries such as Blackfish, Earthlings, Cowspiracy and The Cove will contain bias. Throughout this blog, I’m going to attempt to detach from the ideologies that consume my everyday life and look beyond the message of animal activist documentaries to focus on how the narrative structure influences humans as a whole.

Animals have long since dominated our lives: in our homes, throughout social media and especially on screen. Raising awareness about their abuses in a documentary can be confronting for most people. In relation to the narrative and structure of animal activism documentaries, how does the media influence our ethical opinions towards animal abuse and our stance in the animal rights movement and what is the best possible approach to this? 

We’ve all talked to our animals like humans at some point in our lives. In fact, I’ve done it to the point where my cat thinks she IS human. So is our relationship with animals at home the same or similar to that of a documentary when the narrative structure defines ‘nonhuman animals as morally relevant victims, animal rights activists as heroes, and animal exploiters as villains? (Freeman and Tulloch, 2013) This specific technique used in animal activism documentaries is called anthropomorphising animals. It is when animals are made to appear to have human attributes, which characterises them. For example, Tilikum the orca in ‘Blackfish’ and Tyke the elephant in ‘Tyke Elephant Outlaw’. Perhaps the reason documentaries present animals as humans is because the only way we can mentally picture their suffering is if we picture them as ourselves. Freeman (2010) agrees, arguing ‘the paradox for animal rights is that it needs to emphasise similarities between human and nonhuman animals in order to deconstruct the dualistic thinking that separates and privileges humans, yet one must also respect diversity found across the species spectrum.’


“In 1994, an elephant named Tyke gave her last circus performance. By the time the dust settled, a trainer was dead, 13 people were injured, and Tyke herself had been shot almost 100 times and killed.”

It sounds selfish of the human species to pity an animal only because it has been portrayed as a human. Therefore, if the activists are already willing to watch the documentary, how do documentary makers target the other percentage of the human population? , Scudder et al. (2010) examined the impact of a graphic animal rights campaign launched by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) against alleged abuses on a corporate farm. The results found that there wasn’t necessarily an impact on pre-existing values of the food-processing industry but more of an act of respect and ‘credibility’ for PETA. This means the media influences our ethical opinions through the credibility of the existing organisation. Credibility can come from a wide range of areas: posters, advertisements, short videos, protests, documentaries and celebrity support.


PHOTO: An example of the ads appearing on the back of some Coffs Harbour buses

Keeping this in mind, we must look at this from the perspective of the activists making the documentaries. Freeman and Tulloch (2013) narrow the media’s intentions down to three points:

1) thrusting clandestine spaces of animal cruelty onto the public screen and exerting a reverse panopticon pressure on industries;

2) challenging the human/animal dualism, the violent hierarchy it justifies, and the (imagined) humane self-image of society; and

3) serving as a critical rhetoric that constructs dissonance-producing antagonisms, (dis)identification, and legitimacy of the movement.


Beyond the activist’s campaign goals there needs to be a larger motive in terms of the world viewing animals as ourselves. Narrowing it down to a specific species is chipping away at the colossal glacier of animal rights, but not fast enough.

“Right now I’m focusing on that one little body of water, where that slaughter takes place. If we can’t stop that, if we can’t fix that, forget about the bigger issues. There’s no hope.”

-Ric O’Barry, The Cove


Packwood Freeman, C (2010). “Embracing Humanimality: Deconstructing the Human/Animal Dichotomy.” Greg Goodale and Jason Edward Black, Eds. Arguments about Animal Ethics. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, [online] Available at: http://works.bepress.com/carrie_freeman/2/

Packwood Freeman, C. and Tulloch, S. (2013). Was Blind but Now I See: Animal Liberation Documentaries’ Deconstruction of Barriers to Witnessing Injustice. OxfordScreening Nature: Cinema Beyond the Human. [online] Available at: http://works.bepress.com/carrie_freeman/13/.

Scudder, J. and Mills, C. (2009). The credibility of shock advocacy: Animal rights attack messages. Public Relations Review, 35(2), pp.162-164.