Chris Palmer, Director of the Center of Environmental Fillmmaking and American University School of Communication professor is the author of Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom (Sierra Club Books, 2010)
Q: We've seen an explosion of TV shows about dangerous animals and people interacting with them. Why?
A: People want to be entertained and networks want to make money. One of the least expensive ways to entertain people is to send someone like Steve Irwin or Jeff Corwin to grab at animals like snakes and reptiles, make them seem menacing and dangerous, and create adrenaline-pumping entertainment.
From the point of view of the broadcaster, it all makes sense. But from the point of view of the animals, these programs are a problem because audiences get the impression that it is OK to get up close and personal with potentially dangerous animals and to invade their personal space, and that it is OK to stress, harass, and disturb them. In my opinion, it isn’t.
Q: People who make and broadcast films and shows that get our pulses racing with scenes of predation—or humans having close calls with animals—claim they are educating the public about nature and wildlife. But what are audiences really learning?
A: Not always the truth. Audiences get the message that it’s fun, safe, and exciting to get very close to animals, even though it can be dangerous for humans and is extremely stressful for animals. Wild animals want to be left alone. The problem is that these types of shows net high ratings— ratings drive what we see on television.
Viewers also get the impression that animals spend most of their time fighting, or fleeing, or having sex—when in reality, wild creatures spend most of their time resting or finding food. But that isn’t exciting to watch.
But this issue is complicated because programs that flaunt highly intrusive on-camera hosts actually do some good. Millions of kids are now interested in reptiles because of Steve Irwin’s antics on television. But they’ve also absorbed the message that it’s acceptable to harass and disturb wild animals.
Q: Can you describe the kinds of ethical challenges wildlife filmmakers typically face?
A: Wildlife filmmakers face three main ethical challenges. First, are audiences deceived and misled by these kinds of films, and if so, does it matter? Second, are wild animals harassed and disturbed during filming, and if so, does that matter? And third, is conservation advanced by these films? Do they make any difference?
Audiences are deceived all the time while watching films, but the question is: when does legitimate artifice become unacceptable deception? Pretending captive animals are wild, staging predation sequences, using fake sound effects, demonizing animals and exaggerating their dangerousness, giving the impression that we have no environmental challenges and that all is right with the natural world…these are all ways audiences are misled and deceived.
As I’ve said, wild animals are far more disturbed and harassed by wildlife filmmaking than most people realize. Outright cruelty is common, unfortunately.
The third question, about conservation, is more difficult to assess. Without wildlife films, awareness of the natural world would be significantly reduced, but do these films actually promote conservation? A few obviously do, but many people who watch these films are already interested in conservation— to some extent the films are talking to the converted. Even in the rare case when a film does contain a conservation message, does it register with the viewer? Does the viewer take any action as a result? We have no reliable metrics on this.
I don’t think wildlife films advance conservation as much as they should or could. Films need to radiate hope and inspire action, not promulgate despair and gloom. They should also be part of a multi-layered campaign involving many media and extensive outreach.
Q: Why is “conservation” a dirty word among some broadcasters?
A: Because it doesn’t sell! Broadcasting is not about delivering programs to audiences, but about delivering demographically-desirable audiences to advertisers. Ratings are paramount. Occasionally conservation sells, as we saw with An Inconvenient Truth. But for the most part, networks and studios see conservation as “eat your spinach” television that they—and audiences—want to avoid.
Q: Are you saying there’s something wrong with, say, the hugely popular Shark Week on Discovery or Untamed and Uncut on Animal Planet?
A: Yes. We need to rethink what these programs accomplish besides enriching the broadcasters’ bottom line. These programs demonize animals and give viewers a misleading impression of the animals’ true nature. The distinguished film producer Katie Carpenter wrote to me about Untamed and Uncut, a program that shows the most horrifying, gruesome animal attacks on humans.
She wrote: "I believe Untamed and Uncut does more of a disservice to wildlife conservation than any show on television. Animal Planet should be ashamed." Shark Week casts sharks as monsters and man-eaters, thus misleading viewers about the true nature of sharks and facilitating their mass slaughter.
I think there's a connection between these kinds of shows and what happened recently at CITES, the United Nations meeting, when sharks, bluefin tuna, and polar bears were refused protection.