Anjelica Huston on new animal rescue documentary ‘Breaking the Chain’

The Oscar-winning actress teamed up with PETA to produce a new documentary that’s focused on raising awareness around neglected dogs.

Anjelica Huston

Wake-Up Call: As both an award-winning actress and animal rights activist, how did your inspiration for the documentary come about?

Anjelica Huston: I’ve worked with PETA for years and have long been aware of their Community Animal Project and the essential, life-saving services they provide. But it’s one thing to be aware of this work and quite another to look into the faces of these dogs who are chained outdoors year-round, suffering from malnutrition, open sores, chronic diseases, but who still light up and wag their tails when PETA’s field workers come to give them food and water, a warm, dry doghouse to sleep in, and to show them affection and love, which is just as important to them as anything else. I’m deeply moved with every story of a lucky dog rescued from a miserable life and given a chance to experience what a loving home feels like. So I would say that those dogs, and also the ones who don’t survive and never get that chance at love, were my inspiration, and I wanted to let as many people as possible hear their stories and be inspired by PETA’s amazing work.

What are some takeaways you hope people will learn from this film?

The problem of chaining and neglect is enormous. So is dog and cat homelessness, and these ongoing crises will get worse every day until human beings do what’s necessary to solve them. And it is solvable — by banning unattended chaining everywhere and passing spay/neuter laws, for starters. Then, because this is a human-made problem, we all need to do our part to fix it. That means not only making sure our own cats and dogs are spayed or neutered, but all our family and friends’ dogs and cats, too, and our neighbors and our neighborhoods. We have to focus on stopping all these unwanted animals from being born in the first place out of carelessness or neglect, or curiosity, or any other reason. And it’s not that hard, with so many low-cost or free spay/neuter services offered all around the country, and with PETA as a resource and guidance center, we can do it. Humans created this problem, and it’s up to us to fix it.

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted animal neglect and the overpopulation crisis?

It’s a mixed bag, for sure. On one hand, we saw a spike in people adopting and fostering animals in shelters, instead of buying from a breeder or pet store, which is great. And the lockdowns have definitely helped foster empathy for companion animals who are usually left alone at home staring at the wall for hours on end. Now we have a taste of what that feels like! But unfortunately, Covid-19 struck just as kitten season was taking off, and with so many shelters, clinics, and veterinary offices reducing their hours or shutting down entirely, there was also a decrease in the number of spay/neuter surgeries, and intakes so we’re expecting to see an increase in the number of homeless cats and dogs.

Again, the solution comes down to stopping unwanted animals from being born. It was a huge problem before Covid-19, which has only made it that much worse.

What is the first thing someone should do if they suspect an animal is being mistreated?

I’d start with a kind word. Often, people are completely unaware that their dog or cat is suffering at all. Or they might not realize that yelling at their dog, yanking on their neck collars, or leaving them outdoors in all weather extremes is cruel, and someone gently pointing it out might just do the trick. But if that doesn’t work quickly, or if the mistreatment is even more severe, they should call their local authorities — Animal Control or the police. If they don’t get a helpful response, they should call PETA. And if the situation is an emergency where an animal’s life is in imminent danger, like a dog overheating in a parked car, or an injured cat or dog running loose in traffic, or any animal who’s become trapped in plastic beverage rings or discarded fishing line or tin cans, then in addition to calling for help, they should also stay on the scene near that animal until help arrives. The most important thing is to never turn a blind eye, never just walk away, and never be silent. Do something, because you are probably that animal’s only chance for help.

How can animal neglect be better addressed on a national level?

What we really need are federal laws requiring minimum standards of care, including a ban on unsupervised chaining of dogs, spay/neuter requirements, and breeding permit fees. That would really give law enforcement nationwide the tool they need to help prevent millions of unwanted animals from being born every year into lives of deprivation and neglect, and to alleviate the lifelong suffering of countless dogs who are sitting, right now, at the end of a chain, in the blazing summer heat, with no shade, covered in fleas, with no food, water, exercise or companionship — and who will sit like that every day of their sad, miserable lives until their hearts stop beating. Preventing this cruelty shouldn’t even require debate. It’s a common-sense, bipartisan issue, and federal action would certainly bring help to these animals whose lives are hanging by a thread.

One of the things your new documentary contends with is a general lack of education among the public about animal care. What are some tips you would give to first-time pet owners?

What a great question. Here’s my handy list:

  • Make sure you have the time and resources to properly take care of an animal or animals for their entire lives, which hopefully, will be many, many years. Make sure you are ready to commit to that animal for his or her lifetime, through thick and thin.
  • Never buy an animal from a pet store or breeder. Always adopt from your local shelter.
  • Consider adopting an older animal. In many cases, these animals have had their hearts broken from losing their homes and their families, and as you can see from a glance at any shelter website, there are numerous older animals waiting for their new family to come along.
  • Keep them safe indoors. Cats and dogs allowed to roam unattended have dramatically shorter life spans.
  • Be prepared to wake up every day to someone who’s happy to see you and who can’t wait to explore the day with you and shower you with unconditional love.

This originally appeared on Medium.