Fakery and Ethics in Wildlife Programmes: Natural History on Television

It is now nearly 40 years since the release of the Disney film White Wilderness, famous for its sequence showing thousands of lemmings committing mass suicide by throwing themselves off the top of a cliff. Controversy struck when scientists explained that wild lemmings do not, in fact, behave in this way. But that was nothing to the furore when it emerged that the entire sequence had been staged. The supposedly suicidal Norwegian lemmings were in fact pushed off a cliff under a bridge in Calgary, Alberta. Their carcasses were later scooped up from the Bo River and frozen for later scenes.

White Wilderness is often held to represent the bad old days of wildlife film -making, and since then natural history has slowly moved out of the realm of the Hollywood feature film and into television, where it is seen to be in the safe hands of people such as our own David Bellamy and Richard Attenborough. From the security of the science-based, educationally-driven format, the producers are believed to be caring, principled individuals who would never countenance the atrocities and inaccuracies represented by White Wilderness.
So would it surprise you to discover that sequences in the high-profile, high -budget Wildlife Special series currently being shown on BBC1 were filmed in captivity or with hand-reared animals? Such practices are in fact more common than is often believed, and go to the heart of an ethical debate that is ruffling feathers in a usually complacent world, where wildlife film- making is championed as broadcasting’s darling, its house very much in order. Produced and presented mainly by scientists or passionately committed experts, it has maintained its educational remit while simultaneously making the move into high-quality, dramatic entertainment. Not only has it survived the transition to an increasingly competitive and deregulated television market, but it seems to be flourishing. Natural history now has several dedicated satellite channels and continues to have a high profile in the schedules of terrestrial channels. Somewhere in the evening’s schedules, you can be guaranteed charismatic mega-fauna, dramatic predation sequences, remarkable special effects, exquisite, high-definition photography, the latest discoveries and endless revelations. The only problem clouding the horizon would seem to be that the supply can hardly keep up with the demand.

But last year, ripples of unease were sent through this otherwise rather insular world when the Denver Post re-ported serious allegations against veteran wildlife film producer Marty Stouffer that he not only faked scenes but mistreated animals…

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Fakeryand Ethics in Wildlife Programmes