Donners passionate about animal rights

Duo get their message across through movies

When Lauren Shuler Donner’s new film, “Hotel for Dogs,” is released in January, it will once again combine two of the producer’s favorite things: moviemaking and animal rights.

And while Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin get top billing as lovable orphans with an elaborate plan to pamper stray dogs, Donner is counting on their four-legged co-stars to inspire more humane attitudes toward animal adoption.

“It’s just like when we did ‘Free Willy,’ as it displays our interests and allows us to get our message out,” explains Lauren, who collaborates with husband Richard to create responsible pieces of entertainment. “We’ve always loved animals. That’s something Dick and I had in common.”

While some in Hollywood are content merely writing checks for their favorite causes, the Donners have been committed supporters of a large number of environmental and animal rescue causes, incorporating many of their views into their films.

“Twenty years ago, when Dick was doing ‘Lethal Weapon,’ he said to me, ‘We’ve just got to do something about the dolphins,’ ” recalls Earth Island Institute exec director Dave Phillips. Richard’s passionate interest in the issue resulted in a new scene: One of the characters is about to make a tuna sandwich when his son intervenes. “Mom, dad killed Flipper!” the kid shouts. “Honey, we’re boycotting tuna because they kill the dolphins that get caught in the nets,” his wife explains — and so audiences were served some activism with their action.

“Dick was determined to raise awareness, and we all felt it made a difference,” says Phillips, who met the couple through Jerry and Annie Moss (the M of A&M Records), mutual friends who had homes near the Donners in Friday Harbor,Wash., and Hawaii.

Seeing the effectiveness of that “Lethal Weapon” opportunity led the Donners to get behind a fully eco-conscious movie, “Free Willy.”

“Animals in captivity is not right and not what nature intended,” Lauren says.

“Making ‘Free Willy’ was a catalyst, and now we’re involved with dozens of groups,” Richard adds.

According to Phillips, “No one else in Hollywood has been more committed to protecting and saving marine life. Without them, Keiko (the movie’s killer whale star) would have died in captivity in Mexico.”

Pat Derby, co-founder of Performing Animals Welfare Society (PAWS), refers to the Donners as “heroes” for their “Free Willy” project.

“We met soon after the film came out, and they’ve been great supporters of all captive wildlife,” she says. “They’re always actively involved. They’ve been up to visit the elephants at Ark 2000, our sanctuary near Sacramento, and were instrumental in saving and getting ex-circus elephants to the sanctuary.”

Among their activist peers, the Donners appear to be on constant lookout for another worthy animal cause to support, joining forces with Linda Blair and her World Heart Foundation, formed after the actress witnessed firsthand the toll Hurricane Katrina took on animals.

As Richard explains it, “She went down to New Orleans, saw all the suffering, bought some land out in the desert and started this (organization) to try and help, and she needs support.”

The Donners are also very proactive with animal rights legislation, joining forces the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to get a proposition on California’s November ballot that would grant freedom of movement to caged animals.

According to Richard, Prop. 2 is a pretty straightforward affair: “It simply says that all animals have rights to live lives without cruelty and abuse. When I go to a restaurant and I see someone eating veal, I want to punch them in the mouth. Do you realize that the calf is taken from its mother, put in a V of wood where its feet are off the ground and it can’t move — for a whole year? So Prop. 2 says, ‘OK, go ahead and kill ’em and eat ’em, but give ’em a life before you do!’ ”

HSUS president and CEO Wayne Pacelle is grateful to have found such committed champions for animal rights. “They’ve been involved with us for decades now, going back to the dolphin-tuna boat issue, and I personally asked them to help us get Prop. 2 passed in November,” he says. “We know they’ll do everything in their power, as this is a deep and long-held passion of theirs. You couldn’t get better friends or allies of the Humane Society than the Donners.”