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…