Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Animal Actors Who Went From The Shelter To The Screen

Whether you're an unapologetic dog lover or more of a cat person, pretty much everyone loves animals. Despite that, every year over six million cats and dogs enter animal shelters in the United States alone (via ASPCA). Many are lucky enough to find loving homes after a while, but the issue of animals going unadopted is one that continues to plague shelters across the world. Thankfully, the support for pet adoption is a growing trend, and one that aims to leave no animal left uncared for (via The Washington Post).

While most former shelter pets are likely content with a warm bed and regular meals, a select few wind up destined for stardom. Below, we'll be taking a look at some of the most unexpected success stories in Hollywood animal history. From sleeping on the streets and in cages to acting on screen in theaters across the world, each of our picks is a certified celebrity.

Max from How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Whether or not you're a fan of Jim Carrey and his unconventional style of acting, you can't deny that the films he's in are usually pretty memorable. Such is the case with his 2000 title "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," a retelling of the classic children's story in which Carrey stars as the titular yuletide menace. Between antagonizing the residents of nearby Whoville and generally hating everything that has to do with Christmas, the only ally that the Grinch has in the icy cave he calls home is his cute dog, Max, who happens to be a lot harder to dislike than his owner.

Whether it was getting them acclimated to working with Carrey in full Grinch makeup, or wearing whatever costume the scene required, a lot of time went into making sure the dogs playing Max were up for the part. That's right, dogs: It took six look-alike dogs to bring the Grinch's best friend to life (via Humane Hollywood). Even though only two wound up being in the majority of the takes used in the final cut, all six were also thankfully former shelter pups, making "How the Grinch stole Christmas" a worthy addition to any animal lover's film lineup.

The dog in Mad Max 2

He might not have ever had a true name in his only feature film, but it's hard to deny that this scrappy dog left his mark on the hearts of every sci-fi fan out there. Set in the not-too-distant future, and shortly after the events of the first "Mad Max," total societal collapse has consumed the planet, leaving a world of total anarchy in its wake. Left to wander the wastes is Max (Mel Gibson), a police officer before the downfall that's now without a cause. The only friend he has remaining is a stray dog that stays loyal to Max despite the absolute chaos the two face together.

Even though the events depicted throughout the "Mad Max" series of films are thankfully fiction, the circumstances that our four-legged protagonist endured weren't far off from the real-life actor's past. An article in the now defunct Hot Dog magazine went behind the scenes, talking to director George Miller about some of the challenges that went into crafting the film, with one of the most difficult being getting Max's sidekick to give off a believable performance. After being rescued from the clutches of the RSPCA pound, it became clear that the dog would have trouble working around noisy vehicles, or even looking aggressive while fighting Max's enemies. Despite the hiccups in production, though, "Mad Max 2" remains an all-time classic film, and one we're glad gave a second chance to a dog in need.


One of the oldest picks on our list, "Benji" is a title likely familiar to animal lovers everywhere. The film stars a mixed-breed dog named Higgins as the titular Benji, a stray dog turned hero after two local children are the victims of a kidnapping. Produced on a modest budget of approximately $500,000 (via IMDb), "Benji" was a critical and commercial success, quickly turning an incredible profit of nearly $40 million (via Box Office Mojo). With a breakout hit like that, any film studio would be foolish not to get to work producing a sequel, of which "Benji" had plenty.

The movie mutt's ruff beginnings in his best-known role closely mirrored his real-life origin story, as Higgins spent his puppy days in the Burbank animal shelter before being taken home by Frank Inn in 1960 (via Burbank in Focus). A talented animal handler, Inn would transform Higgins into a television star for the sitcom "Petticoat Junction," a role Higgins would play until its conclusion in 1970. The lovable dog wasn't quite ready to quit acting just yet, however, as the now aging star came out of his canine retirement for one final role in his greatest film of all, "Benji." 

Though both Inn and Higgins have sadly since passed, the friendship the two shared was undeniable, with The New York Times reporting that Inn requested to be buried with the ashes of his four-legged friend. If you still aren't sold on "Benji," just look to the newest film in the series, which continued the trend of casting a rescue dog for its star role (via New York Post).

Church from Pet Sematary

When it comes to horror, it's tough to argue against Stephen King being one of the best writers there is. Boasting a prolific career with countless stories of his being adapted across film and television, it's unlikely that you've never come across a piece of his work. One of perhaps King's most memorable entries is "Pet Sematary," which tells the story of a burial ground in which nothing that's laid to rest within its soil stays that way for long.

Getting a cinematic adaptation not once, but twice, the latest version of the story revisited the Creed family's encounter with the supernatural. Alongside the cast of human characters that you'd expect (Jason Clarke and Amy Seimetz, to name a few), the family's housecat Church has a lead role in the project. During an interview with Business Insider, animal handlers Melissa Millett and Kirk Jarrett shed some light on the feline star's unlikely rise to fame. They revealed that the role of Church was surprisingly played by five separate cats, but only two, Leo and Tonic, were used for the majority of filming. Despite that, all five of the four-legged superstars were rescued from shelters prior to filming, and went on to be happily adopted once production ended.

Despite mixed reviews after release (via Rotten Tomatoes), the film was a box office success (via Box Office Mojo), meaning it looks like we can expect a Pet Sematary prequel to the latest entry at some point in the future. While "Pet Sematary" is a concept that just refuses to stay dead, we can all likely agree that casting rescue animals for our favorite movies is a trend we'd love to see live on.

Old Yeller

Sometimes films starring acting dogs become so renowned that their canine leads go from stardom to pop culture legends, with the protagonist of "Old Yeller" being one of them. Joining the ranks of other iconic cinema dogs like "Lassie" and "Toto," the loyal protagonist of "Old Yeller" (real name Spike) is easily one of the most famous pups in the history of film. Released in 1957, it's also one of the earlier examples of a classic dog film, and one that undoubtedly continues to help inspire the directors of today when creating similar flicks.

Despite his fame, the early days of Spike's life were anything but glamorous (via America Comes Alive). First living in an animal shelter in Van Nuys, California, he likely never could have hoped for anything but a quiet life with a loving owner. The humble days at the pound soon came to an end for Spike, however, when he crossed paths with big-time Hollywood animal trainer Frank Weatherwax. From there the rest is history, with Spike bringing the character of Old Yeller to life and tugging on audience's heartstrings ever since.

Sarii from Prey

Making its way onto Hulu in August of 2022 and taking the internet by storm immediately after release, it's safe to say that "Prey" might just be the best movie set in the universe of "Predator" we've seen so far. Set further back chronologically than any of its predecessors, the latest installment goes all the way back to the 18th century Americas. The Predator's trip to the continent starts the story of an epic showdown between the iconic villain and a Native American warrior named Naru (Amber Midthunder) trying to protect her tribe.

Thankfully, Naru doesn't have to face the daunting challenge alone. Always at her side is her lovable yet tough-as-nails canine sidekick, Sarii, who's had a pretty meteoric rise to stardom over the last year. According to a Facebook post by the Fulton County Animal Services in Georgia, Sarii (real name Coco) first came into their care in early 2021. Just over a year later, Coco had been happily adopted, ditching the shelter life for the glitz and glam of Hollywood. While it's not too well known what Coco's life was like prior to her breakout role, it's safe to say we'd all love to see this incredible pup in another film soon.

Chance and other horses in Emma's Chance

It's not all just cats and dogs that have made it big in Hollywood! Released in 2016, "Emma's Chance" is a film that's practically made for every horse lover out there. After landing herself in trouble for trespassing, high school student Emma Bailey (Greer Grammer) is punished with community service at the same property she was caught on. Along the way, she learns to love the horses she's been taught to care for, and even tries to help save the noble institution from financial ruin.

As it turns out, the Red Bucket Ranch shown in the film is an entirely real place, as are all the horses on-screen. The ranch, located in Chino Hills, California, is still open today and credits itself with rehabilitating hundreds of rescue horses since its foundation in 2009. They were more than happy to oblige when asked to lend a hand to the team behind "Emma's Chance," which helped raise awareness for their mission of helping the horses that need it most. A heartwarming coming-of-age story, "Emma's Chance" is made even better thanks to the fact that almost every horse shown is a rescue animal, making it a no-brainer for our list.

Marley from Marley & Me

Adapted from the pages of a bestselling memoir of the same name, "Marley & Me" is a heartwarming and at times tear-jerking tale about the relationship between man's best friend, and married couple John (Owen Wilson) and Jennifer (Jennifer Anniston). Though the real-life Marley was dubbed "The World's Worst Dog" by author John Gorgon, the pups that played the infamous dog were a bit better behaved, according to an interview with People preceding the film's release. The staggering 22 Labrador retrievers it took to depict Marley over the course of the film all had different parts to play during production, but one in particular named Clyde ended up shining above the rest, taking up the lion's share of screen time.

While the details surrounding Clyde's real-life adoption circumstances are a bit murky, the Los Angeles Times confirmed the adorable canine's success story in a 2008 article. It's all the more fitting that Clyde would be a rescue dog considering how much care the production team behind "Marley & Me" took to make the film animal-friendly. Their efforts definitely paid off, as "Marley & Me" received widespread praise from animal rights groups like Peta and American Humane after hitting theaters.

Tramp from the remake of Lady and the Tramp

Another example of classic movie dogs, the original "Lady and the Tramp" is obviously a bit different from the others on our list since its protagonists were all animated. The same can't be said for the 2019 remake of the classic Disney story, which traded the hand-drawn animation for a mix of some live-action performances and special effects.

The cute love story between a pampered pet dog named Lady (voiced by Tessa Thompson) and a scrappy stray named Tramp (Justin Theroux) is as timeless as it is unlikely. Just like the two lovers manage to beat the odds by the end of the film, so too did at least one of the animal actors starring in it. As reported by People before the film's release, the real-life pup named Monty couldn't have been more fitting for the role of Tramp. Going from the street to the shelter, and then finally behind the camera for his first feature film, his handler Mark Forbes described how important it was to cast a rescue as Tramp: "Once we started turning our attention to casting the main dogs, in that same breath we said, 'We need to rescue as many of these dogs as we can.'"

Even though the film wound up in the doghouse with some audiences after release, it certainly deserves some praise for its casting of real-life rescues in need of a good home. If nothing else, hopefully, "Lady and the Tramp" goes on to inspire future directors to follow its pet-loving example.

Captain Marvel's cat Goose

Arguably one of the better movies in the ever-expanding MCU, "Captain Marvel" was a much-needed dose of fun in the dramatic period between the release of "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Avengers: Endgame." The first female-led entry in the MCU, it also greatly expanded on the lore in the series at a crucial time for the franchise. Set during the mid-'90s, Vers (Brie Larson) finds herself stranded on planet Earth during a battle with an enemy species of aliens. Along the way, she winds up working with Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D, with her newfound feline companion Goose in tow.

Depicted by a team of four real-life tabby cats, like some of our previous picks, only one would wind up having the skills needed for most of Goose's shots in the film. In an interview with animal trainer Ursula Brauner published by People, she reveals that the cat playing Goose (real name Reggie) was also a former shelter cat before his breakout role. Turns out Reggie was also a natural when it comes to acting, with Brauner stating, "Reggie absolutely knows when he is on the job. He also knows when we nailed a shot! Sometimes, if he doesn't hit his mark the first time, he goes back to 'one' on his own to try it again. Sometimes he gets distracted en-route but realizes it and resets himself." With a sequel to "Captain Marvel" now well into production, it's safe to say we're all hoping to see this talented cat reprise his role.

Ruby from Rescued by Ruby

Another pick that goes a step further than just incorporating animals saved from shelters, "Rescued by Ruby" is all about giving our furry friends a second chance. Inspired by the real-life exploits of Ruby, a rescue dog turned police hero, the film is a feel-good deep dive through her time on the force.

According to an article published by CBS News, the real-life Ruby had a reputation for having high energy that wound up getting her returned to the pound nearly half a dozen times. Things were looking bleak for the lively Ruby for a while until she was fortunate enough to end up in the care of the Rhode Island State Police, a job she worked for most of her life. Six years in, Ruby was on the scene of a missing persons search when she found the boy they were looking for, going from underdog success story to nationwide hero (via CBS News).

With Ruby's heroism immortalized by way of a feature film released in early 2022, the creators knew it just wouldn't be right to not cast a fellow rescue for the lead role. As reported by The Providence Journal, the filmmakers relied on the acting chops of two nearly identical dogs found in the same shelter to bring the character of Ruby to life. With plenty of critical and audience praise (via Rotten Tomatoes), "Rescued by Ruby" is another example that casting rescue animals is always the right call when it comes to making a movie.