Posts Tagged ‘wildlife documentaries’ by Becky Hutchens

Many people view wildlife documentaries for the entertainment, and not just to learn about nature. So why does it matter if the filmmakers stage animal encounters, behaviors, and other “natural” scenarios? Is it necessary for the audience to be aware of such occurrences in the films? The short answer: yes.

As Chris Palmer, author of Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom, wrote in his book, there are several questions of ethics that need to be considered: what about scientific accuracy? Animal welfare? Why choose to deceive an audience? (Lawrence)

Scientific Accuracy: As a science major studying animals and their natural behaviors, it’s disturbing to me knowing that so many people are being given false information from sources deemed to be accurate. In the science and zoology world (which is what these wildlife documentaries are about), data, observations, and research cannot be made up or revealed in “half-truths.” Imagine if the researchers in a medicinal drug study fudged their results a bit in order to make the research study more interesting and better for the product. The consequences could be huge. An example having to do more with this argument: a wildlife documentary that shows a predator eating prey may seem harmless, but what if the scene was staged, and that particular species of predator doesn’t actually hunt and consume that species of prey? The misunderstood knowledge of this predator-prey relationship could cause confusion and other consequences.

Fields of science have no room for fictionalized or dramatized accounts. Some audiences may watch wildlife documentaries for entertainment, but these films are still advertised and presented as films of scientific fact. Because of staging in these documentaries, the potential information, research, and data they could provide are moot.

One last example that comes to mind is the once popular Disney documentary White Wilderness. In the film is an emotional scene of lemmings jumping off a cliff and committing mass suicide. However, the scene was entirely staged: filmmakers actually pushed the animals off the side of a cliff (White; Woodford). In reality, lemmings do not partake in this behavior and do not commit suicide, but the film was seen by so many people that the myth spread like wildfire.

Animal Welfare: Pressure on filmmakers to get a winning shot brings up a question of animal welfare. How far should filmmakers be able to go? Staging a scene or scenario for the camera may stress wildlife, or it may encourage harm to animals. As mentioned just above, what was the impact on the lemmings that were pushed off the cliff? In what conditions are the animals from game farms kept? What is the impact on the prey species’ population when a filmmaker controls a scenario so that the prey animal is killed when it otherwise wouldn’t have been? Ethics can be confusing and muddled: Is it okay to catch insects and feed it to a predator? Most people would say yes. I would probably say yes. Is it okay to break a rabbit’s leg so you can film a predator “hunting” it, as one filmmaker admitted to doing (Aufderheide)? I’d say no, it’s not okay. Where should the line be drawn?

It is very important that audiences be aware of these questions and dilemmas, because if change is needed, people must first be aware of the problem.

Deceiving the Audience: This particular ethical issue is the one I believe to the most important one. After talking with friends, family, and other peers, I’ve determined that it seems there are many people who don’t mind if there are some instances of staging and not-so-natural scenes in wildlife documentaries. But almost everyone said they do think it’s unfair and not right that they aren’t being told about it.

Another issue is, when the audience is deceived, they may start developing misconceptions of nature due to unreal or staged footage they see in the films. A prime example is the story described above about the public believing that lemmings commit mass suicides. Such a staged scene has caused such a huge misconception!

With a skewed idea of what nature is really like, people may unintentionally harm, harass, or injure wildlife, and they may even put themselves at risk. For example, I can remember a time when my husband and I were hiking and, upon finding three fox kits poking out of their den, my husband, not aware of the repercussions, insisted on creeping closer and closer, which caused the kits a noticeable amount of stress. I have also observed, during my trips to national parks and other locations of close human-wildlife interaction, people putting their lives at risk as they approach grizzly bears, bison that weigh thousands of pounds, and bull elk that are ready to attack anything that moves in order to defend their females. People do this because they believe it is okay. Because audiences may be watching documentaries and learning from them that people need to be up close in order to have a great wildlife experience, and that it is okay to attempt to be so close and personal with wildlife, which is not correct.

A study I’ve recently come across shows that audiences of video media really are influenced and affected by the ways animals are represented in the film. The study showed many individuals small commercials with chimpanzees in them. (Subjects were under the impression that were participating in a marketing study and had no idea what was really being studied.) Subjects that viewed videos of chimpanzees interacting with humans, being silly, or being humanized (made to look like they have human feelings) were less likely to recognize and realize that chimpanzees are wild, untamed animals with serious conservation status concerns. But subjects that viewed videos of chimpanzees acting naturally and in their native habitat had much better understandings of the animals and of reality. (Schroepfer et al)

Conclusions: It’s okay for wildlife documentaries to be viewed as entertainment. However, it is important for people to know the truth about what they’re seeing. But it can make an experience more enjoyable when aware of it authenticity.


Written by Becky Hutchens

It can be easy to remember to think critically about essays, books, editorials, opinion pieces, and other forms of writing. Thinking critically is what helps us develop our own opinions and beliefs, and is what helps keep us from being easily persuaded into believing everything we read. But it’s important to realize and remember that we shouldn’t just be critical about writing; it is important to ask questions about the media we see and hear.

When watching wildlife documentaries, it can be hard to remind yourself to think critically, especially if you’re watching the film mostly for entertainment. But in order to gain a better of understanding of what you’re seeing, it would benefit you to ask questions:

What is the point of this documentary? Is the purpose of the film to spread awareness about wildlife conservation? Is it to convince the audience to appreciate nature? Is the purpose to teach audiences about scientific research and the field of zoology? Or is the documentary more for entertainment purposes, such as a film of dramatizations on shark attacks?

What are the filmmakers trying to achieve? What are their motives?

Is this film influencing (or attempting to influence) its audience?

Why would a filmmaker choose to stage a scene? Think about possible reasons: the filmmakers wants a winning shot; the situation would otherwise be too dangerous for the crew; wildlife are secretive, hard to find, and work on their own schedules; a filmmaker is under pressure to get great shots to gain higher ratings; a filmmaker wants their film to be more exciting…

Stay critical!

Written by Becky Hutchens

It is not uncommon for wildlife documentary filmmakers to stage animal encounters, behaviors, and other “natural” scenarios for their films. The problem is that filmmakers do not readily share the fact that they use staged footage, which causes the audience to form misconceptions of nature.

A major publication that takes a look at this issue is Chris Palmer’s Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom. This book is partly a written confession by Palmer and is also a piece of writing that is calling for a change. In it, Palmer explains that some filmmakers commonly deceive the audience by including faked scenarios or staged scenes (Palmer, Shooting). Some of these movies have disclaimers at the very end of the credits, but, as Palmer says in an interview on ABC News, “but who reads the credits” (Deception)?

Palmer, who has made some well-known IMAX wildlife documentaries and other films that have been aired on a variety of popular nature channels such as Discovery, PBS, Animal Planet, and Travel Channel (Media 2-3), admits to staging scenes in his own films: from sounds of bears playing in the water being made in a studio by recording human hands splashing in a bucket to placing a whale skull from a person’s collection at the bottom of the sea to encouraging predators to eat a dead animal carcass by placing pieces of candy inside, Palmer has contributed his own share to deceiving audiences. He even used tame, game farm wolves for the entire IMAX film Wolves, and the two whales named Misty and Echo in the film Whales were actually shots of many different whales given the same name for the purposes of the documentary (Deception).

Other examples:

  • Some filmmakers admit to using fake animals that are “3-D special effects that apparently were so realistic that zoologists couldn’t tell them apart” (Dargis).
  • Some documentaries that are about birds use a technique in which birds were raised as hatchlings by the camera crew in order to take advantage of imprinting, a behavior in which young birds will follow their “mothers” everywhere (Davies; Palotta).

By spreading awareness of this problem, I hope to inform the thousands of viewers of wildlife documentaries that what they see might not be what really is. I also hope to call out those filmmakers who manipulate wildlife and their environments and force them to be accountable. The people I surveyed all grew up loving these wildlife films and grew up with certain ideas of nature. I want them to think critically and know that the reality of nature cannot properly be understood from just these wildlife documentaries.