It was a few weeks ago when I saw something that got me really, really mad. It was a show on the National Geographic Channel where they were trying to trap some snow leopards for collaring. It was just a spoke in the rocks, with a snare. One night, the alarm went off, telling them something was in the trap. When they got there, it was a snow leopard with its paw stick in that snare, frantically trying to get away. Just the snare alone got me cringing enough, but even worse was the fumbling trying to sedate the poor animal. First there were minutes of deciding who got to shoot the dart at the animal. The most awake guy got to do it, and he missed the first shot. So he reloaded, aimed and… missed again. All the while that leopard was still trying to get away, hurting itself more and more. So another just took the gun and shot, hitting it perfectly straight away. So I yelled at my tv, raging over the fact they just didn’t give it to that more experienced shooter first. In between, they put these little interviews with the people saying they needed to dart as soon as possible and the stress the animal got and a whole bunch of other infuriating stuff. So there’s two scenarios: either they actually missed twice on a rather easy shot, and I want to punch all of them straight in the face, or no one actually missed and the animal was actually sedated straight away, in which case I still want to punch them straight in the face for lying about such a thing just to make sensationalist tv.
But, I try to be a pacifist, so instead of actually punching someone, I just made it an angry intro to an article I wanted to write anyway. Let me continue with talking about another person that is guilty of the same sin. I have a problem with Steve Irwin and his status as beloved conservationist. The internet, and especially reddit, has this great admiration for the Australian fellow, but I can’t help but feel a little bit of disdain for the man. I definitely understand what drives the man and even admire his enthusiasm, but the way he went about to show animals is just absolutely horrifying to me. Especially now, after I’ve just watched the second episode of Planet Earth II, I can’t help but wonder why Irwin and people like Bear Grylls are (seemingly) more popular than my personal greatest hero, Sir David Attenborough.
The way I see Irwin is as an irresponsible jackass. Like many of the American nature shows, it just looks like reality TV to me. Irwin is probably best known for his crocodile wrestling. But what does that show about nature? Nothing. I’ve seen clips of him running and catching an emu, and people applauded him for his fast running while I’m just worried about the emu and the stress the bird must’ve gotten by being chased like that. There’s that clip of him being chased by a komodo dragon up a tree, and people find it funny, but I can’t think of anything else than that he just should’ve left the animal alone. Why does he need to annoy and touch everything he sees? I know his heart is in the right place and he is a good man, but I’m far from the only person calling him out in this, with his dramatic ways, antagonizing wild and dangerous animals. South Park did a thing on it, and comedian Gabriel Iglesias has put it in words quite well.
Irwin almost exclusively showed this dangerous side of nature, and while part of it is definitely red in tooth and claw, there’s so much more to it. It’s the American way, saying how dangerous an animal is, how many pounds of pressure its jaws have, how it can break through bones, how little chance its prey has, how it can kill a man in less than ten seconds. Many of those shows have things like Monsters, Deadliest or Danger in their name. The pinnacle of this trend is Shark Week. A whole week, dedicated to those so-called killing machines and ultimate predators. And yes, they’re good at it, but they have a reason for it. They need to survive as much as their prey does. Why not talk about that, instead of continuing to instill that fear of predators. That bad exposure is so damaging to their reputation. They’re just another kind of animal. Don’t make people afraid of animals, for fuck sake. Make them enjoy wildlife, make them love it by showing how damn pretty it is. Get rid of that terrible sensationalism and make good shows for a change, with more than just kills and death. Nature is all about life. Ever heard of Planet Earth? Life? Frozen Planet, Human Planet, … Each and every one an absolute marvel of nature documentary. In case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer for Planet Earth II. If you’ve already seen it, you probably want to see it again anyway.
There’s a good reason why the part of the iguana running for its life from the racer snakes has been shared time and time again all over the internet. It’s terrifically done, almost like watching a movie instead of a nature show. The iguana in that famous clip lives, but the episode also showed a few who didn’t. There’s another part where the egg of a fairy tern was destroyed, the mother standing in what is pretty much her dead child, the yolk dripping down like blood. The show does show death. It makes you see that nature includes kill or be killed. But it’s not the only thing. The iguana escaped. The tern raised another chick. They made you care for them in just a few minutes, like a good book makes you care for its characters. American shows don’t, they just want the adrenaline shots. They pervert the darker side of nature for views, like a pimp. But when watching anything from the BBC and hear David Attenborough talk, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry. You will be amazed and bewildered and have this overwhelming sense of gratitude that such a thing exists at all. Planet Earth II has the extra benefit of music by Hans Zimmer, and every time I heard that leitmotif, the frisson is real. With every shot they show even my cool and stoic appearance just melts away and I turn into a giddy child. I’m not even joking when I say I cried a few times.
Not that the BBC documentaries are entirely pure, there has been some trickery here and there well. But they’re white lies, lies to make an even better story. To show what didn’t necessarily happen on camera, but probably did at one point. People don’t always realize how difficult some shots must have been to get. Just a few seconds of a snow leopard could have taken months of preparation and patience in extreme circumstances. A huge factor, especially for rare animals or spectacular behavior, is luck. You’re not always there when the thing happens that you wanted to film, like that birth of a polar bear in Frozen Planet. It was filmed in a Dutch zoo, because you just can’t film such a thing in the wild. You’d need to dig into that nest, disturbing the mother and endangering the cubs. As long as the information given isn’t false or misleading, those lies shouldn’t be an issue at all, especially if it’s made clear how it was actually done in the making off specials. Maybe it can be a little disappointing to some, but I’ll take a real birth in a ‘fake’ environment over never seeing it all. And if the choices were not seeing it versus unnecessary obtrusion, I’ll take the former.
I think it all comes down to showing respect for nature. When doing research, you do have to go a bit more hands on to get your results, but in all other cases, I’m a proponent of “observe, don’t interfere”. Attenborough does. Jacques Cousteau did. It’s why I admire Theodore Roosevelt’s work as president. But it’s also why I’m a bit hesitant about people like Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. They did fantastic work to preserve their subjects, but I can’t help but wonder if their heavy involvement with the animals themselves was a good thing. Biological research brings a whole array of ethical problems with it. If you want to identify a smaller animal, you pretty much always have to catch it and take a closer look. If you want to describe a new species of insect or spider, you usually have to have several species trapped and killed. If you want to follow a pack of wolves, you have to dart and collar one of them, which is stressful for the animal and the pack might even cast it out, making it all for naught. So research has this variety of intrusiveness that I’m not always very comfortable with either. A good researcher obviously limits this as much as possible and in the end many more individuals can be saved with the few sacrifices or ethological harms. Many things have been done ‘for the greater good’. We just need to make sure we know that it actually is.
So in summary, I’ll repeat that nature is about life. But life is a circle, birth, growth, survival as well as death. So the shows that focus only on the death, the destruction, killing, the bloodier side, contribute next to nothing to understanding, appreciating, admiring, loving nature. So do yourself a favour. Watch Planet Earth II. Cry, but also laugh, immerse yourself in the amazingness and be bewildered by all the wonders true nature provides. See the yin AND the yang. If you see an animal, don’t just go and grab it. Look at it walk. Look at it live. Don’t pick the flowers, just look at them. Appreciate them standing there. Watch it live.
You can swat flies and mosquitos all you want though, screw those things.
This blog was brought to you by: Hans Zimmer – Planet Earth II soundtrack