Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
Posted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on March 11th, 2013
The Animal Legal Defense Fund is excited to announce its first Animal Book Club contest! To enter the contest, simply leave a comment below and join the club—three lucky winners will be chosen at random to receive a free copy* of Susan Orlean's best-seller Rin Tin Tin.
Rin Tin Tin: the Life and the Legend
By Susan Orlean
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend (2012), is a New York Times bestseller by Susan Orlean (author of The Orchid Thief). Susan has been featured on PBS and NPR, and writes a column in The New Yorker called "Free Range."
The iconic cultural memory of Rin Tin Tin seems to transcend history. And yet his story is deeply entrenched in a historical moment—the birth of Hollywood, the post-WWI era, and of course, the dawn of television, and, perhaps most importantly, the advent of companion animals. At the Animal Legal Defense Fund, we know that the law lags well behind the reality of animals as our family members and companions. From tenant disputes to custody battles and the outdated legal status of animals as "property" we know only too well that the law doesn't properly recognize the rights of companion animals. So how did dogs transform from working animals to companions lying at the foot of our bed? One answer is Rin Tin Tin.
More than a story of how one orphaned dog became a silver screen legend, Susan Orlean's book Rin Tin Tin describes how Americans came to see dogs as loyal sidekicks, and companions. Born in France during World War I, Rin Tin Tin was just a newborn when Lee Duncan, a U.S. soldier, found him in a bombed out shelter. The small, still-blind puppy lay trembling in the dark with his siblings and mother amongst dead dogs. From that moment, Rin Tin Tin and Lee forged a relationship that cemented their bonds and led to increasingly central roles in the burgeoning silent film industry.
These silent stories of dogs fascinated the audience. In films like Where the North Begins, The Lone Defender, Rinty of the Desert, and The Million Dollar Collar, dogs were heroes. Watch a clip of heroic Rin Tin Tin from Clash of the Wolves.
Off the set, they were celebrities. Rin Tin Tin, the most famous German Shepard of all time, had his own phone number, his own salary, and earned more than most of his co-stars.
So why was Rin Tin Tin so popular? Susan's book reflects on his enormous ability to convey feeling. Many fans described him as 'the human dog.' Rin Tin Tin's presence in the budding medium of film allowed people to better understand animals, to first figuratively then literally bring them into their home. Movies allowed the audience to see their interactions with dogs as relationships and their companions as sentient beings with feelings.
Dogs had been domesticated for thousands of years, but had been work animals, with jobs to do, rather than household companions. This leap was helped by Rin Tin Tin, who inspired many to want a Rin Tin Tin of their own. With this insight into dogs' lives, dogs became treasured not just for their intelligence, work ethic, loyalty, and protectiveness, but for their empathy and ability to connect with humans.
In World War II, Americans even gave their dogs to the war effort in a project called Dogs for Defense. Almost impossible to imagine now, 19,000 companion dogs were given up to fight in the war. At the time, the Army acknowledged both the sentimental and monetary sacrifice with gratitude. Dogs worked for the Red Cross bringing aid to wounded soldiers, helped locate dead soldiers, and sniffed for danger.
Rin Tin Tin was an unusual dog with a unique story. Of course, the Animal Legal Defense Fund does not support the use of animals in entertainment; one concern is the treatment of animals on the set, another is what happens behind the scenes. So, how did Lee Duncan get Rin Tin Tin to perform the strenuous work required of him? Lee demonstrated the relationship with audiences, using voice commands rather than instruments of punishment or reward. He attributed their relationship to camaraderie between the species, developed from their early bond of affection and respect.
Susan Orlean doesn't shy away from noting that most animals were not trained this way, but rather with physical punishment: kicks and slaps, and perhaps worse. Then, as now, many animals in films were harmed or killed. Horses, especially, were tripped and shocked, and ridden off cliffs.
Rin Tin Tin wasn't just a film-star—he was a real dog. But his life story allows us to see how the treatment of animals in Hollywood has changed. He was treated with dignity, on camera, and off. Unusually, Rin Tin Tin was an equal with human actors in the films—a fully realized character with his own storyline.
Rin Tin Tin's journey is the hero's journey, overcoming obstacles, and winning in the end, a structure that was especially important during the post-war experience. Susan writes:
"In his way, Rin Tin Tin had come to represent something essentially American … He was everything Americans wanted to think they were—brave, enterprising, bold, and most of all, individual."
The advent of diegetic sound in movies eventually displaced animals, and they became sidekicks rather than stars. His progeny (and lookalikes) later took up later roles in film, and a television show, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, in the 1950s. But when Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, millions of fans mourned his passing. Rin Tin Tin's story, and the great place he holds in hearts and minds of millions of people around the world, is just one more reminder of why ALDF works so hard to help the law adapt to recognize animals as more than mere property, and protect the rights of animals on their own terms.
Join ALDF's Animal Book Club and leave a comment below to be eligible to win a free copy of this book. Tell us how important companion animals are in your life, or your favorite memory of the dogs known as Rin Tin Tin.
Questions for Response:
* Apologies, books can only be shipped to U.S. Addresses.
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