PETA criticizes The Dark Knight for its treatment of animals

You can harm dozens of innocent bystanders but don’t lay a finger on a dog

bat dogNearly every Batman movie, comic book, and television show includes the obligatory references to bats. Directors can be forgiven if they dwell on the flying rodents, either in a literal sense (by giving them regular appearances in caves and flashbacks) or figuratively (personifying their traits and applying them to Bruce Wayne). But in the most recent film adaptation, The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan chose to give much more screen time to another animal: Dogs.

“The Joker’s just a mad dog. I want whoever let him off the leash,” District Attorney Harvey Dent says to crime boss Salvatore Maroni. In another scene the Joker threatens to feed a mobster to his own dogs, saying, “We’ll see how loyal a hungry dog is.” There are at least two instances in which Batman does battle with Rottweilers and after Lucius Fox designs a new bat suit Wayne asks him how well it will fend off dogs. In the final scene Batman is shown fleeing with a number of police dogs in pursuit.

I didn’t connect these dots at the time, but as I was walking out of the theater, a friend of mine — who happens to own a Rottweiler — said that her least favorite parts of the movie are when Batman fights the dogs. I asked her why so.

“Because they’re totally pushing a negative stereotype about Rottweilers,” she said. “They’re reinforcing the idea that they’re these vicious creatures.”

Apparently, she’s not the only one who felt this way. Yesterday, PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — posted an item on its website criticizing the movie for having its hero beat dogs. I spoke to the writer of that post, Christine Doré, in a brief phone interview today. She said that the film could have handled the scenes in a different way.

“Basically, while I personally thought it was a fantastic movie, it was a little disappointing, that part of it,” Doré said. “I think, you know, that it’s funny that this superhero genius that everyone loves, who has all these fantastic gadgets, who never uses guns, that he doesn’t have access to a tranquilizer or other deflecting device.”

I asked her to elaborate on this, but she then tried to reroute me through PETA’s official media department.

David J. Schwartz, film critic for Strange Horizons and author of Superpowers, a novel about a group of young superheros, called the dog beatings “uncool” in his blog while other reviewers argued that the animals were meant to symbolize obedience and loyalty.

Jim Henley is much more ambivalent on the issue. Henley writes about comic books for science fiction publisher Tor, and in a phone interview today he said that Batman’s combat with dogs was justified in this instance.

“Within the context of the movie, the context of the scene, it was an act of self defense,” he said. “My understanding of mainstream animal rights theory — which I’m not by any means completely hostile to — self defense is an understood concept. For instance, you’re allowed to shoot the wolf that’s about to eat your baby.”

He pointed out that the movie is murky as to whether any dogs actually die during the fights — they were typically thrown off camera, and in one instance over a railing — and that’s because directors are typically hesitant to show any graphic violence involving animals.

oskar“Americans are very sentimental about Spot,” Henley said. ” … You’ll see horror movies where people get disemboweled, have their heads sawed off, use staple guns to stick themselves to plaster board. My experience is that you don’t see any of that happen to animals onscreen. I’m happy not to see dogs tortured, but it’s interesting that you’ll see really bad things done to people, and not really bad things done to dogs. Even in The Dark Knight, there’s a reason why it’s a little unclear what happened to the dogs that Batman was fighting. They weren’t going to show the dogs splattering on the street or anything like that.”

I asked my Rottweiler-owner friend what she would have had Batman do in those situations.

“I just really think Batman should have had a gadget that releases treats and distracts dogs,” she said.

While this would certainly be cute, I’m not sure that it would fit the dark theme Nolan was going for.

12 Comments

  1. rowan Says:

    while i agree that it is the environment in which a dog is raised that factors into its disposition, it is pretty common for rottweilers to be used as guard/attack dogs.

    having been attacked by a pair which were roaming free in the neighborhood where i lived when i merely walked out the door of my house to be greeted by them on the walkway with bared teeth, growling and lunging upon me as i frantically made it back into my house i understand why nolan used them.

    the depiction of the dogs in this film suits the dark theme perfectly. other dog breeds which could have filled the role suitably would be doberman, weimaraner, or german shepherd.

    fyi, after calling animal control to report the two rottweilers on the loose, i carried my .357 as i exited the house to walk to my car in the driveway should i have encountered them again.

  2. Johanssen Says:

    The main issue here is that people have the choice whether to inflict pain on themselves or not, via free will and our rights system.

    Animals do not have the same courtesy applied to them, they are made to have pain inflicted on them – the animals in this film would have been trained to be vicious at a given time.

    That is the difference.

    There was no need to include animals in this movie, and, for all intents and purposes, given the budget of this movie’s CGI, they could easily have used green screen and other tried and trusted methods, if they needed to at all.

  3. Sapna Says:

    Nolan misrepresented Batman. Batman is not cruel. When he beats up on the Joker in the interrogation room, it is an inner conflict for him. Hurting others is not his way, but he was driven to it due to the stress of the situation. When Batman can think clearly, he uses his gadgets, not violence to thwart the bad guys. He only hurts as a last resort. It is why he does not kill the Joker even though he has ample opportunity.
    In making Batman physically fight with the dogs, Nolan does not keep Batman true to his comic book personality. Sure, the first time, the dogs took him by surprise and he had no other choice. However, the Batman we have come to know and trust would have learned from this situation for his next battle. He not only would need a dog-proof suit, but he would invent a gadget to humanely keep the dogs from attacking him.

  4. Steve Says:

    I am a bit surprised by how sensitive people are with this. Vicious criminals had attack dogs (in the context of the film) go after Batman and he fought them off. Am I missing something? I like dogs, my family has two, but I did not think Batman was “uncool.” And newsflash: some bad people train dogs to be mean. Crazy, right? Batman, too, would not take time out of his day to carry tranquilizers or “invent a new gadget to humanely keep the dogs from attacking him” either. Not with everything on his mind: crazy psychopaths, love problems, etc. That is just not reasonable.

    By the way, the whole “negative stereotype” is understandable. From wikipedia: “In the US, the Rottweiler is the number two breed of dog named in fatal human attacks from 1979 to 1998 in a report by the CDC.” This is behind Pit-bulls. Poeple train them poorly and treat them even worse and they are scary.

    It just hit me too: I actually feel a little dumber for even trying to defend a fictional character in a movie for having defended himself from Rottweilers.

  5. Delphi Says:

    Oh no! Please don’t quote Wiki on this statistic. It’s incorrect. The media has blown Pib Bull aggression way out of proportion. Many of the news reports about aggressive dogs have misrepresented the breed, anyway! To the media, “Aggressive dog” means ‘Pit Bull’. It makes sense. Pit Bull stories bring in readers, and we all know news organizations are not without their own agendas. In one report in which a ‘Pit Bull’ killed a human, it was later discovered that the dog was merely a black lab. ATTS (American Temprament Testing Society) studies have shown that Golden Retrievers and beagles are more likely to bite humans than Pit Bulls, who were known as ‘Nursemaid Dogs’ until the mid 20th century, for their tendency to be great with kids. Responsible ownership is paramount when dealing with any ‘Power Breed’ dog (rotts, mastiffs, shepherds…etc.). I own two pit bulls. Both love humans, other dogs, and cats. It’s all in the ownership. If you’re interested in truth rather than sensationalism, check this link for more myths about pit bulls: http://www.badrap.org/rescue/myths.cfm

  6. LuAnn Morgan Says:

    Can’t anyone just enjoy a movie for what it is? Everyone knows that animals can’t be intentionally harmed in the making of any movie. In the case of The Dark Knight, the dogs were used to add action to particular scenes. Whether they were rotts or chihuahuas, does it really matter? Too many people tend to take things too literally. The scene wasn’t meant to sensationalize “mean dogs,” it was meant to show the reason why Batman needed a new suit. His current suit had weaknesses and if he was going to be able to destroy the evil descending on Gotham City, he had to have a suit that could totally protect him.

  7. earlgreyrooibos Says:

    Hi Simon-

    I’m the blogger from Feminocracy who wrote the post about “The Dark Knight.”

    I definitely do not condone cruelty towards animals. But I also know that there are rules regarding the treatment of animals, and therefore the dogs used in this film were not beaten or abused. I also know that dogs can, in fact, be vicious. Not all of them. But when I was a kid, some neighborhood dogs attacked me unprovoked. They attacked several neighborhood children, one of which had to be taken to the ER. So it’s not like the filmmakers were making an outrageous statement against dogs. Some dogs, perhaps those owned by criminals, may be raised to have violent tendencies. Imagine that!

    I also have serious issues with PETA. Whether it’s destroying somebody else’s private property, or the way they objectify women in their ads, they never fail to lose credibility with me. They don’t seem to have much respect for human life . . .

  8. Monica Says:

    Thanks Delphi for mentioning BadRap.org. I just signed my adoption papers for my Bad Rap dog on Saturday and I couldn’t be happier.

    I understand that people may think we are overreacting when we say that dogs should not be portrayed chained and attacking.

    The problem is not the breed, it is the image of dogs chained and attacking. I think as “bully breed” owners we are more sensitive. I NEVER let my dog off her leash in public, not because she is a pit bull but because she is a dog! It is rude and careless to let any dog off leash…that includes the dogs that are in the purse at a restaurant-NASTY! My dog doesn’t even go in my backyard unsupervised. They all (little purse ones too) and who knows what might trigger any dog.

    I agree it is just a movie, but the message that some ignorant person will get is, “I’m gonna chain up a Rott to guard my house” and what will follow will be an angry aggressive dog that will eventually attack something/someone. Sad to say but some people really do learn their social skills from media hype.

    My dog Clover from Bad Rap. Somebody decided she needed to be mean so they set her on fire.

  9. plutosdad Says:

    I also can’t stand watching dogs get hurt in movies. I avoided seeing I am Legend for a long time for that same reason. But humans? fine :)

    I think part of the reason is that when humans get hurt in movies, no matter how realistic – it is not realistic at all. No screaming, crying for their mothers etc. When they are shot they fall in a heap and are dead, no bleeding out and taking minutes to die like in real life.

    Contrast that with dogs getting hurt in movies, for one it’s just harder to tell what’s realistic. But also they make the dogs yelp and cry out. This makes it more real to us.

    Plus we have this genetic instinct to protect cute things like kids and dogs. This doesn’t apply as much to adults.

    Nolan did a good job though, nothing uncomfortable or painful to sit through. Even the violence against humans occurred off camera. That is a real rarity nowadays with so much blood and gore in movies.

    The charge that he didn’t use a tranquilizer is silly, people think tranquilizers are like magic, they hit and the animal falls to sleep instantly.

    I suppose maybe part of the reason people think that is movies and tv teach us. Just like it teaches guns either kill people instantly and painlessly, or can be used to make trick shots to stop someone without killing them. None of that is true, but it’s how tv and movies work, so people start thinking that way.

    Which is why the speciesist charge has some weight.

  10. pippi Says:

    Ahhh…It was just a movie. I love my dog (half pit, half rot) and I have trained him to be a loving dog. When my cat had kittens (it was her first litter) it was like she didn’t have the instinct to care for them at first, and he helped her clean them and keep them warm. It was seriously heart-warming and amazing. But, as much as I love my real-life dog, I can’t seem to get too worked up about a movie.

  11. Heatro Says:

    I’m with pippi. It’s just a movie. I know in my conscious and subconscious mind that none of the animals seen in the film were hurt, therefore it doesn’t bother me.

    I know for a fact, however, that were I in a situation like that, I’d be doing everything I could to get those dogs away from me. I refuse to let an animal rip my face off and eat my throat because I’m afraid PETA would cry over me hurting them. Sorry, kids, it ain’t gonna happen.

  12. Darkly_Dreaming_Jester25 Says:

    Oh. My God. It was just a movie. NO ANIMALS REALLY GOT HURT. There are animal cruelty standards in film for a reason – you cannot mistreat any animal on film for any reason whatsoever. Batman was DEFENDING HIMSELF from angry attack dogs that would have otherwise hurt him badly. As for Batman using an alternate means, let’s take a look:

    1. Treat Dispenser. This would make Batman a) look like a wuss, b) get hurt, since attack dogs are trained to kill and probably will not stop for treats, and c) clash with the gritty style Nolan was going for. I mean, really – what is this? Sixties Adam West era Batman?

    2. Tranquilizer Gun. It wouldn’t have worked at all, wouldn’t have worked, because as PlutosDad said, the animal doesn’t drop right away. I’ve seen more than enough of those animal cops episodes on Animal Planet to know that. Besides, then PETA would be all up in arms over the fact that the dogs had been shot. Think – would you rather see a dog get hit or a dog get shot at? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see them get hit.

    Furthermore, those dogs (in the film universe) were trained to be mean. PETA should be criticizing the original owner of those dogs for the cruelty that resulted in the dogs being mean in the first place. And might I mention that the dogs went into the possession of the Joker after their original owner was thrown out of power in his gang? The Joker, a man who murdered hundreds of people without stopping to breathe, has pets now. Do you honestly think that he’s gonna treat those dogs any better? But no – apparently a mass-murdering psychopath in clown make-up is a much better person than a man in a bat suit who fights crime and punches dogs out of self defense. Hmm.

    By the way, the Joker heartily endorses your puppy-killing, PETA. Please continue.


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