Animal documentaries feel like a scam we don’t even think about as a scam anymore. They’re rationalised as educational and, arguably, they can be. Often, they’re ghoulish displays of supreme speciesism.
On the one hand
We often have scenes of natural behaviour from eating, including predation, to mating, nesting and taking care of young. At least some of the time, these are legitimate moments. I say at least some of the time because there have been incidences of either total or partial fabrication.
Are they real?
The most infamous is the lemming suicide, which was entirely fabricated by Walt Disney in its 1958 documentary, White Wilderness – spoiler alert, lemmings don’t naturally commit suicide. It’s not ancient history though. Even beloved Sir David Attenborough’s work has come under fire with outright faked, potentially misleading or at least not completely transparent footage.
I have less of a moral problem with footage of natural behaviour, even if it’s partially staged. It’s not perfect, but I can see how this can be helpful, educational and even inspirational. I’ve been influenced from these documentaries in a variety of ways. I don’t believe I would’ve been had I not watched and thought about them.
On the other
Where my blood runs cold are those scenes of animal distress, suffering and death brought about by the effects of climate breakdown. With callous impunity, we film animals dying of cold, thirst, hunger from conditions which are the new natural and which spell their – and our – extinction. We film these moments, overlaying sad orchestral music and seconds of commentary explaining how what we’re seeing is because of our man-made mass extinction event. And then, we move on to other more pleasant scenes without missing a beat.
For example, in the most recent edition of Frozen Planet, there’s a scene of muddy and shivering penguin chicks on a muddy rock. We’d all expect to see a frozen rock, right? Well, because of climate breakdown, where there once was ice, there’s now water and mud. Sir David Attenborough narrates, with some pathos, the chicks can survive the freezing cold because their feathers are made for that. But they won’t survive the mud, wet and cold because their feathers will get too sodden and muddy to give them insulation and protection.
And then onto the next scene.
What just happened?! The viewer is watching a creature freeze to death and do so because of our own mismanagement of our world. Nice.
That wrenching image and others like it will be seared into my memory for eternity.
What’s the value?
The documentary doesn’t discuss solutions in any meaningful way or even question the ethics of what it’s showing as if purported education is reason enough. There’s never a mention about being vegan as something we can all do to stop contributing to climate breakdown and biodiversity loss. And we have no idea what the filmmakers themselves are doing about helping these doomed creatures. We can safely assume they’re doing nothing. They just take and profit from the animals’ suffering, whilst paying light lip service to the obvious cause of their demise.
Would this be acceptable in a human context? If not, then why do we accept it in an animal context? Would we just take it as gospel this is how it is and the filmmakers are just reporting the facts? What’s the value of what’s being shown weighed against the suffering of the animals? Could such value be realised differently? And why shouldn’t documentarians be more accountable? We demand this accountability when the subjects are people. This acceptance of how things are, unquestioned resignation to seeing something sad and shallow reflection about our own responsibilities, that’s part of speciesism.
Being speciesist isn’t getting us anywhere. No, I’m wrong. It is getting us somewhere: to a gravely impoverished world and our own unnatural demise.
What can we do?
Maybe people need to witness this suffering, but I’m sceptical. I believe parcelling it up in these nice videos with lush soundtracks doesn’t do anyone or any salient issue any justice. It’s all woefully insufficient.
Next time you’re watching an animal documentary, view the program through a different perspective, one where people aren’t at the centre. Most importantly, decide how will whatever you’ve learned change how you behave and relate to the world.
Frozen Planet: BBC denies misleading fans, BBC News, 12 December 2011.
Frozen Planet’s polar bear footage was standard practice, claims BBC, the Guardian, 12 December 2011.
It’s about time we recognised that nature documentary makers regularly deceive us – and we’re partly to blame, Independent, 6 April 2018.
We are right to ‘fake’ nature scenes, says Attenborough’s top cameraman, The Times, 9 October 2013.
The Nature you see in documentaries is beautiful and false, The Atlantic, 12 April 2021.