Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Genesis Awards harness star power to save animals

Portia de Rossi and Ellen DeGeneres strut their stuff on the red carpet. Photo courtesy of HSUS.

When you make a career in show business, creating a fantasy becomes your reality.

But this past Saturday, it wasn't make-believe that took center stage at the 23rd annual Genesis Awards in Beverly Hills. Animal cruelty and neglect grabbed the spotlight when celebrities, directors, writers and producers were honored by the Humane Society of United States.

America's largest animal welfare organization handed out 20 awards for films, television programs and news stories that raised public awareness of animal issues. The biggest honor of the night went to Ellen DeGeneres and her partner Portia de Rossi, who accepted the Wyler Award together for spreading the word on the inhumane treatment of factory farm animals. DeGeneres spoke to viewers of her talk show about Proposition 2, which addresses the issue in California.

"This stuff haunts me now," DeGeneres said.

As the star-studded crowd began to arrive at the Beverly Hilton hotel, uninvited bystanders crowded against the velvet ropes with cameras in hand, hoping to get a glimpse of the noteworthy parading past on the red carpet. The eclectic crowd featured big-name stars mingling with hard-core animal activists.

But the most popular celebrity was one who strolled in on four legs, not two. It was Clyde, the dog who starred in the hit film Marley and Me with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson. He stood to the side of the red carpet and enthusiastically greeted everyone who walked by, even giving my face a friendly lick when I kneeled down to pet him. It was better than an autograph.

This was my second year attending the event that's held in the same massive ballroom used to host the Golden Globes. Guests nibbled on a delectable vegan meal of artichoke salad, tasty soy protein with black rice, and a rich chocolate mousse dessert.

"I called myself an animal lover, and I ate them," DeGeneres told the crowd. "It really is so much easier to say, ‘I can't think about it - I don't want to know about it - it's horrible' - and when we finally took the time to force ourselves to look at the reality of the lives of these poor animals, you can't ignore it. You can't say, ‘Yeah, but I want a cheeseburger so badly. I don't want to look at that."

The footage that rolled as the nominees were announced was gut-wrenching to watch. At every table, tears flowed down perfectly coiffed cheeks. Some guests had to step out when the images got to be too much.

The clips spared no tender hearts. A has-been racehorse was killed at a slaughterhouse. The tape cut to another that lay dying in the mud. Abused elephants were beaten and chained until they performed tricks for a circus crowd. A whale was massacred in the ocean, its blood staining the seawater bright red. Factory farmed pigs and chickens were miserably crowded into tiny cages, unable to enjoy basic behaviors like standing up or spreading their wings.

DeGeneres wasn't the only talk show queen to win a prize for speaking out against the atrocities. The Oprah Winfrey Show also garnered an award, picking up the outstanding talk show accolade for reports on factory farming, puppy mills and dog fighting. Another big win was for Walt Disney Pictures' Bolt, in the feature film category. The Academy-Award nominated movie reveals the sad truth about the fate of abandoned cats and dogs. For the fifth time, Fox picked up the Sid Caesar comedy award for The Simpsons, which recognized them for a show that painted a bleak perspective on the horrors of factory farming. ABC TV's Grey's Anatomy won best drama for an episode that discussed the ethics of using live animals in medical research.

News outlets were also honored. ABC News took home the TV newsmagazine national prize for 20/20. World News With Charles Gibson won for a national news feature. HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel received the national newsmagazine cable award.

Among the print journalism winners were USA Today for a series of newspaper articles, and the magazines Sports Illustrated and Newsweek were also recognized.

Animal activists are accustomed to being abused and misunderstood for their viewpoints. But it was evident that among this crowd, being kind to animals was ultra-cool. Celebrity chic, in fact. Ellen herself embraced the title.

"The more labels I add to myself, the more I risk alienating people, but I'm openly gay, and that's worked out okay...so now I'm openly vegan, and I will do everything I can to help."

Here's me with Clyde, the lovably rambunctious canine celebrity from Marley and Me.

Jorja Fox of CSI fame has been voted sexiest vegetarian by PETA. She plays forensic scientist Sarah Sidle on the CBS crime drama CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Animal lover Marg Helgenberger is also of CSI fame, and plays Catherine Willows.

Just a few of Jennifer Coolidge's best-known parts include roles in Legally Blonde, American Pie, Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. She's lent her star power to organizations such as Louisiana SPCA, PETA and Farm Sanctuary.

Oscar-winning actor James Cromwell became a vegetarian in 1974 after visiting a Texas stockyard and witnessing the "smell, terror and anxiety."

Professional football player Jarrod Cooper volunteers with abused dogs at a San Francisco animal shelter.

Michael Vartan of Never Been Kissed and One Hour Photo is also known for his role as Michael Vaughn on the American television action drama Alias. He's also an avid animal lover.

Emmy-nominated Wendie Malick of TV comedy Just Shoot Me plays Nina Van Horn. She's a vegetarian and committed to animal welfare causes.

PETA member Emily Deschanel plays Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan in the crime drama Bones. She's a vegan and an animal rights advocate.

Ellen and Portia accept the Wyler award.

Above photos courtesy of Long Photography and HSUS

More to come…

The 2009 Genesis Awards ceremony was dedicated to ending the senseless slaughter of baby harp seals in Canada. I spoke with renowned British-born fashion photographer Nigel Barker of the reality TV show America's Next Top Model about his work out on the ice documenting the bloodshed. That story’s coming up, so stay tuned.

Photography courtesy of Nigel Barker.

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