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The Glorious 30-Year Star-Studded Past of the Oscars for Animals

From 1951 to 1986, a separate ceremony was held for actors who happened not to be human

A 1956 photo of Lassie, prolific PATSY Award winner (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain) A 1956 photo of Lassie, prolific PATSY Award winner (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain).

Much like Leonardo DiCaprio, an animal has never won an Academy Award.

Unlike DiCaprio, Hollywood’s animals did not always have to resign themselves to vainly hoping for Academy recognition.

For over 30 years, animals in the film and television industry were recognized for their achievements at the annual PATSY Awards, established by the agency responsible for those “No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of this Film” disclaimers, the American Humane Association.

Beginning in 1951, the PATSY (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year) awards honored “outstanding animal actors” in film, adding an awards category for television animal actors in 1958. Each year, the ceremony awarded a “first prize” to the top animal performer, honored up to two runners-up, presented additional Awards for Excellence, and awarded one animal “who might not otherwise have an opportunity to perform” the Craven Award.

The awards ceremonies were star-studded: Ronald Reagan, notable for his starring turn in Bedtime for Bonzo and for being president of the United States, hosted the first ceremony, where Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart gave out the top prize—the winner was Molly, who played Francis the Talking Mule in numerous films. A 1973 issue of Animal Cavalcade extensively covered the ceremony that year, which was the first to be nationally broadcast and featured '70s television stars such as Betty White, Shirley Jones, Ted Knight, and Lassie. Bob Barker—best known as the longtime host of The Price is Right—hosted the ceremony regularly, including the final PATSY Awards in 1986.

News footage of the 1954 PATSY Awards (Source: Youtube/PublicDomainFootage).

Despite the big names involved—both human and animal—a full accounting of its honorees difficult to find. The list of winners up to 1973 included in Animal Cavalcade is the most complete information available, and is partially confirmed by the trophy awarded in 1968, which popped up on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow a few years ago.

In fact, perhaps the best evidence of the PATSY Awards’ history can be found outside the Burbank Animal Shelter. There, a handful of PATSY winners from the 50’s and 60’s had their pawprints memorialized in an Animal Walk of Fame, documented online by Wes Clark for his blog Burbankia, which focuses on artifacts from the city’s history.

And who was the Leonardo DiCaprio of the PATSY awards? From the information available, it looks like Flame, Jr. never won the top prize for his work in 50’s television hit The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, despite being a runner-up every year he was eligible. The snub might have been fated: in her biography of the original Rin Tin Tin, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, Susan Orlean claimed that the legendary German shepherd actually received the most votes for the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actor in 1928, but was disqualified by the award show organizers. Despite nothing in the official rules specifically prohibiting animal actors from receiving an Oscar, recent campaigns to honor animals like The Artist’s Uggie the dog have been unsuccessful, perhaps owing to the precedent set by the first ceremony.