Big Patronising Anthropomorphic Cats

Okay this is the second time I’ve had a rant about the poor quality of natural history film-making. (Let’s be specific about it – I’m actually talking about presenters and script writers, as camera operators and editors seem to get better and better!) I had a similar rant earlier this year after watching Nat Geo Wild’s “Lioness in Exile” (please click through to read it in a new window – you’ll have a better picture of the extent of my irritation). I’m not sure if it’s something about cats that brings out the worst in TV presenters, or that there is some sort of perceived need to patronise and anthropomorphise anything fluffy with big eyes, but this is just getting worse. Somebody help me! I can’t stop yelling at the TV…

Sky TV’s ‘Big Cats: An Amazing Animal Family’ is presented by Patrick Aryee, from the BBC stable of natural history presenters. His website states in his profile:

“A naturally lighthearted approach coupled with the ability to be authoritative and engaging, provides him with a distinct ability crossover between children’s and primetime factual programming.”

So I get it – he isn’t preaching to the choir – that’s not his bag. Patrick is communicating to the uninitiated – he’s recruiting for “Team Wildlife”, which is great. Pitching to adults and children at the same time and holding the attention of both is no mean feat. But presenting for the general public and being knowledgeable in your field aren’t mutually exclusive things (Steve Irwin, Jeff Corwyn, etc., are examples of those who have done this expertly), and I DO think that Patrick is a technically good presenter, but the script on this show really spoils it for me, in spite of the flawless videography and editing. The show was ruined within the first five minutes with one sentence:

“Different felines evolved SUPERPOWERS to thrive in each of the planet’s wildest landscapes.”

Superpowers. Really. Why is it deemed necessary to state that the cat family have ‘superpowers’? You can achieve awe and drama without the B.S. (Because big cats are intrinsically awesome – they sell themselves!) You can say they have incredible hearing, powerful weaponry, amazing agility, and even say that they are beguiling, mysterious – all of these things are true and help to convey that sense of drama and awe without resorting to likening them to bloody power rangers!

You’ve already read  my opinion on what I call APE TV and coffee table conservation programming, but there was a scene in Big Cats that particularly caught my eye as being poor conservation. If you watch it, you’ll know exactly which bit I’m talking about (I hope).

South African ‘big cat conservationist’ Kevin Richardson (AKA ‘The Lion Whisperer’ – I kid you not) basically hangs out with lions. He has integrated himself into a pride of lions in a conservation area (Richardson’s ranch), and he has essentially become part of the pride. Now, in a sense, this is valuable behaviour work akin to experimental archaeology, as he seems to genuinely have garnered an insight into the social dynamics of lions which may otherwise not have been achieved. But it’s not, in my opinion, conservation.

However, Casey Anderson (One of my favourite wildlife presenters) hand-raised a grizzly bear that could not be released into the wild. So somehow I think this is fine, but what Kevin Richardson is doing is wrong. Take a look – I’d love to know what you think:

I think that, in the end, it comes down to my instinct about their motivations. I think that Anderson is respectful, humble and a true conservationist, and I just think Richardson is dangerously arrogant. (Interestingly, you could insert Ray Mears for Anderson and Bear Grylls for Richardson in this scenario for exactly the same reasons. I love Ray, and think that Bear is a narcissistic maniac.)

So, I’ve been up in arms about this for a few days, but ironically something else has fallen into my lap this Christmas season and melted my cold, Grinchy heart. (A little.) I found a TED talk by Casey Anderson, where he mentions the dangers of anthropomorphisation, with a twist:

So what do you think? I found this very thought-provoking. How do we know when we are projecting human feelings and emotions onto a wild animal? If we approach conservation vulcan-style with only logic and no emotion, there are certainly drawbacks (lack of empathy, poor uptake when campaigning for financial and political aid for projects, lower profile of conservation concerns). I’m not immune to the persistent tug of a charismatic animal (I’ve fallen in love with a few bats that I’ve had in care over the years – and yes, their personalities DO vary considerably!).

Where is the place for emotion and empathy in conservation? I think it’s a blurry line, and would love to know what you think…





6 Replies to “Big Patronising Anthropomorphic Cats”

  1. I watched the programme you referred to, the other evening. Great in terms of highlighting the diversity that exists within one group of animals and if it gets more people watching and showing an interest; that can only be a good thing. I’m with you on the Mears/Grylls explanation and would always prefer to spend an hour in the company of Ray as opposed to Bear. However, there are some interesting and valid points that he raises on his programmes and in particular, global warming.

    Having watched Cesar Milan work his magic with dogs and owners alike, I’ve often quoted him when giving advice to friends and acquaintances. It is important to distinguish between what he does and what Richardson has chosen to do with the wild cats. These cats have the ability to kill him with one swift snap of their jaws. I believe they must be given respect before anything else. Yet they are beautiful, fascinating and captivate our minds and hearts. I don’t know the answer because I don’t believe there is one right or wrong answer. I think that there is a place for both emotion and empathy in conservation as without it, many would cease to continue campaigning. It is when that emotion and empathy are used for the wrong reasons but I am unable at this stage to fully detail what I think they are. I need to give this some more thought.

    1. That’s exactly how I feel – that I need to give it more thought. My instinct tells me that Richardson’s work is valuable, fascinating, but ultimately born of his own self indulgence. He is taking HUGE risks (and fair enough, they are his risks to take) but something about it doesn’t sit right with me. And you’re SO right that Cesar Milan is brilliant – he’s really insightful, and I use “no touch, no talk, no eye contact” all the time (mostly with people!) 🙂

      1. Thank heaven that my comment made sense. I often know what I want to say but somehow, it becomes tangled in the web that is my brain and ends up 3 miles short of where I wanted to be.

        It got me thinking though and thinking is great. Do you think there will ever be a time when it will be common practice to have large cats as domesticated animals? I pray that time never arrives. Humans need to know when it is best to leave well alone. We are the cause of too much damage.

  2. Very interesting videos. It is a very different point of view to be so assured of higher thought processes in animals whereas they are often considered as mistaken manifestations of some innate instinct. I have often shaken myself and said – don’t do this, its imagination. However, I nursed a pigeon fledgling with a broken leg back to life and eventual release. In doing so the pigeon integrated itself into the family and exhibited some surprising behaviour and we are not talking here of a “higher” life form. Amelia

  3. Interesting and must try and see if I can see the programme here. I am wrestling with a story that needs us to empathise with the wild while not making the creatures too human like. But I think we need to have empathy for conservation and good science.

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