It is common knowledge that the Australian media loves a rumor. Whether it be a messy celebrity break-up or financial abuse allegations from a former MP, the press can always find a way to spin a story. It’s understandable in some respects, as we all know a bit of juicy gossip is sure to lure readers. Frustratingly though a sometimes inability to confirm sources or fact check correctly is one of the needlessly untrustworthy elements of the fourth estate.
Spinning rumors or unconfirmed reports are not, however, confined to the tabloid papers or celebrity gossip magazines. Examples exist where defenseless animal actors have been pulled into the crossfire. One of the more prominent examples of this practice in Australian media history regards the story of the loveable main characters of the 1986 film ‘The Adventures of Milo and Otis’.
The film, which follows the adventures of a young tabby cat (Milo) and a pug dog (Otis) as an unlikely duo of best friends who become separated and each finds themselves on a tear-jerking and hazardous reconciliation adventure. Both protagonists are acted by real animals and the entire adventure is narrated in order to give the characters a human voice. The use of narration this film constitutes a classic example of anthropomorphism, as the animal charters are “imbued with humanlike intentions, motivations, and goals”. The practice of anthropomorphism, while interesting, is not uncommon, with countless examples of the practice present in modern media texts. What is perhaps more interesting are the rumors of animal abuse that have surfaced since the movie was first screened in the late 1980’s.
Throughout the film, there are various scenes in which the characters are placed in dangerous situations. Examples include a cat actor being placed in a wooden box and pushed over a waterfall, (see video below) and a pug actor entering a physical confrontation with a bear. As the movie was produced in a time before the realistic computer generated images for which we have become accustomed it is understandable that questions were raised as to whether the animal actors were treated humanely during the filming process.
Shortly after the film was released, rumors began to emerge that raised allegations of animal cruelty during filming. Brisbane newspaper The Sunday Mail reported at the time that Animal Liberation Queensland founder Jacqui Kent alleged the killing of more than 20 kittens during production, among other abuses. Animal abuse of any kind is a shameful and inexcusable act, yet in the case of Milo and Otis, the anthropomorphized nature of the animal actors made it easy for newspaper readers to empathise with the characters, and consequently to conjure a sense of outrage. The reason for (at least part of) this outrage is that anthropomorphized animal actors act as powerful agents of social connection when human connection is lacking. In the case of ‘Milo and Otis, rumors’ the human narration of the non-human protagonists allows the viewer to feel a sense of connection and intimacy with the adorable cat-dog Rumors
of animal abuse during filming are troubling, even sickening, yet from the perspective of a media observer what is perhaps more troubling is that in this case the rumors were reported whilst they remained unsubstantiated. The American Humane society is documented as stating at the time that there is no available evidence to suggest that any animals were harmed during the production of ‘The Adventures of Milo and Otis’. It is, of course, the role of the press to investigate a wide range of potential abuses, but more important is the responsibility to uphold the truth, and report the facts. In this case, however, it seems that the adorable and relatable nature of the characters in question has resulted in the facts of the story being placed secondary to a moral panic regarding unsubstantiated claims of animal cruelty.
These rumors have persisted well into the 21st century, with articles surfacing as recently as January 2017 that reference the Daily Mail’s original assertions. There is even an active Reddit forum from 2014 dedicated to the topic. This story shows not only the power of the media to spread unsubstantiated claims but also the role that anthropomorphism of non-human actors can play in providing assistance to the dissemination of such rumors. It is interesting too to note that the ‘Fake News’ phenomena have emerged recently as an apparently new trend in (mainly digital) media reporting, yet the case of Milo and Otis shows that perhaps this problem is something far older than Facebook.