Judging from all the viral videos starring sloths and baby goats, nothing stirs us humans quite like non-humans. And nothing stirs up human passions (on both sides of the issue) than the animal rights movement, which, depending on your point of view, is either a logical extension of basic ethics or anthropomorphism run amok. Watch these 5 documentaries and decide for yourself.
With all the immediacy and excitement of the best action movies, The Cove follows along as animal rights activists undertake a covert mission to save dolphins being captured and abused in the seaside town of Taiji, Japan. The documentary doesn’t just uncover the inhumane treatment of highly intelligent mammals, but it also reveals the real dangers faced by activists around the globe trying to shine a light on institutionalized injustice. Directed by Louie Psihoyos, The Cove won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Documentary. —Allison Gorman
In 2009, a chimpanzee named Travis ripped the face and hands off a Connecticut woman whose friend was keeping him as a pet. The attack was so gruesome, and so surprising—Travis was an “animal actor,” and supposedly well socialized—that it caused an immediate public outcry against exotic animals being treated like dogs or cats. Focusing particularly on a man named Terry Brumfield, owner of two African lions, The Elephant in the Living Room explores the issue from three points of view: those of animal rights advocates, public safety officials and people like Brumfield, who (to quote Shakespeare imprecisely), “love not wisely but too well.” —Allison Gorman
Blackfish delivers ominous chills not because it documents orca attacks, but because it makes a clear, strong case that the attacks are of humankind’s making. It’s more Frankenstein than Jaws. Orcas are highly intelligent animals, susceptible to psychological scars, boredom, frustration and anger. The attacks didn’t spring from base animal instinct—killer whales aren’t known to attack humans in the wild—but from lives of mistreatment. —Jeremy Mathews
Photojournalist and animal rights activist Jo-Anne McArthur considers herself a war photographer, and like images of war, the images she presents in The Ghosts in Our Machine are hard to look at. In this documentary, McArthur doesn’t limit herself to a single battle, like factory farms, but instead reports from many fronts in the war against animals, from the fur industry to medical testing. Perhaps the most difficult and compelling part of her film is the fact that she finds faces for these battles, like Maggie the beagle, who was bred for laboratory testing, and Fanny and Sonny, cows used and cast aside by dairy farmers. These are the “ghosts” trapped in the machine of human industry. —Allison Gorman
Speciesism takes the traditional human assumption of superiority over other species and makes the case that it is both arbitrary and morally wrong. Director Mark Devries explores how that worldview plays out in factory farms, where conditions are so brutal that they’re typically hidden from public sight. Devries covertly documents the conditions in which these animals live—filthy, crowded, lightless. Then he expands the concept of speciesism into even more ethically nebulous and uncomfortable territory, in which “superior” human species—Nazis, for example—assert their will over other, “lesser” ones. Thought-provoking stuff. —Allison Gorman