LOS ANGELES — At the premiere of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" last month, a clutch of impassioned animal activists gathered on Hollywood Boulevard. But they weren't there to throw red paint on fur-coat-wearing celebrities.
Instead, one demonstrator — dressed in a full-body monkey suit — had arrived with a sign complimenting the filmmakers: "Thanks for not using real apes!"
The creative team behind "Apes" used motion-capture technology to create digitalized primates, spending tens of millions of dollars on technology that records an actor's performance and later layers it with computer graphics to create a final image — in this case, one of a realistic-looking ape.
"There are some performing animals that actually do have a more fulfilling life, but apes, you could probably say that's not the case," said director Rupert Wyatt. "In order to do what we need to do with them (in the film), you'd need to dominate and exploit them. I'd like to think that hopefully with performance-capture, we can bypass that and keep apes in the wild."
Yet "Apes" is more exception than the rule — in fact, Hollywood has been hot on live animals lately: The nonprofit American Humane Association, which monitors the treatment of animals in filmed entertainment, is keeping tabs on more than 2,000 productions this year, 100 more than in 2010.
Already, a number of high-profile 2011 films, including "Water for Elephants," "The Hangover Part II" and "Zookeeper," have drawn the ire of activists who say the creatures featured in them haven't been treated properly.
In some cases, it's not so much treatment of the animals on set that has activists worried, it's the off-set training and living conditions that are raising concerns. And there are questions about U.S. films made overseas, which sometimes are not monitored as closely as productions filmed stateside.
For studios, dealing with such questions is often a small price to pay given the box-office payoff for animal films. From the "Lassie" movies of the 1940s, to "Flipper" in the 1960s and more recent hits like "Free Willy" and "Seabiscuit," animal films often resound strongly with audiences, raking in huge ticket sales.
"Marley & Me," which starred Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson as a couple who own a rambunctious Labrador retriever, grossed more than $240 million worldwide in 2008.
At least two more high-profile films that prominently feature animals will be released this year — Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo," which has wildlife including tigers and porcupines, and "Dolphin Tale," about a boy who befriends a marine mammal named Winter that has lost his tail in a crab trap.
Though many animal-protection groups are supportive of the AHA's efforts, several groups including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and Animal Defenders International seem to be ratcheting up their pressure on Hollywood to be more vigilant or explore alternatives.
"I think it's very disturbing, the trend that we're seeing of more and more animals appearing in movies, and I think we should be moving in the other direction with the technology we have," said Matt Rossell, campaigns director for the U.S. branch of ADI, a nonprofit group. "We're calling on these studios to really take a good, hard look" at their use of animals in fictional entertainment.
In 2009, the most recent year for which data was available, the AHA received $10 million in public gifts, grants, contributions and member fees — none of which, the group says, comes from studios or networks because it refuses such donations to maintain its independence. That figure was up somewhat substantially from 2006, when the group brought in $6.1 million.
But because of its limited resources, the AHA says it is not able to supervise animal activity on every set. When the organization does send out a representative, that individual takes note of a number of different factors, including temperature, noise levels and enclosures. If the filmmakers meet all of the regulations, only then can the famous "No animals were harmed..." disclaimer be used during the end credits of the movie.
"I think there are people who believe animals should not be used in movies, and we have a different point of view," said Jone Bouman, director of communications for the organization. "Animals are part of our lives. They are a part of the stories that filmmakers tell, and if they're not onscreen, we're losing one of the best tools we have to remind people that we share the Earth with other creatures. They just have to be humanely treated."
Periodically, the AHA has faced questions about its ability to independently and thoroughly supervise such a heavy load of productions given its limited funds. The group says it does not have the resources to oversee the treatment of animals by trainers off-set. And that was the issue that arose shortly after the April release of "Water for Elephants," a period romance featuring teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson.
Just as the movie — which got the AHA stamp of approval — hit theaters, a video claiming to be of an elephant used in the film, Tai, began circulating on the Internet; it purported to show the animal being trained with electric shock devices and bull hooks.
The footage, apparently recorded surreptitiously, was released by ADI, which says it has offices in the U.S., Britain and Colombia and employs 28 people. The group devotes most of its time to undercover investigations into animal cruelty; in June, two of its members filed suit against Tai's owners, the Perris, Calif.-based Have Trunk Will Travel. They claim that those who saw the 20th Century Fox film bought tickets under the false impression that the animals in the film weren't harmed.
"The company was making all these false assurances and had duped the actors and moviemakers into making similar assurances to the public that they train with positive reinforcement," said Rossell of ADI.
"They were spreading misinformation about the ways the animals were trained that we couldn't overlook."
In a statement, Kari and Gary Johnson, owners of Have Trunk Will Travel, said they "stand by our care and training methods."
"Animal rights extremist groups are using Tai's role in 'Water for Elephants' as a vehicle to take advantage of her celebrity to further their efforts to remove elephants and all exotic animals from entertainment," the Johnsons said. "These groups have no basis of knowledge or experience working with elephants."
Fox did not respond to a request for comment about the dispute.