Wildlife Documentary Deception

Great. CNN and NBC weren’t enough: now we can’t trust the National Geographic channel and Animal Planet.

Chris Palmer, a veteran wildlife photographer, recently went on NPR to talk about his new book. In Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom, Palmer reveals the secrets of his trade, which apparently include renting trained animals when the ones in the wild won’t cooperate and putting M&M’s in the carcasses of prey, so the predators eat with gusto. He also expound on the use of a sound-effects technician to simulate sounds of animals breathing, chewing, drinking and flying. “You can’t get close enough to a bear to record his breath or his splashing in the water. If you got that close, you’d be in great danger,” he told NPR.

Although Palmer attributes the increase in the use of staged and fake footage in nature films to tighter budgets and shooting schedules, surely we had an inkling that this went on from the very beginning. The inventor of the form, Walt Disney, used animals as documentary actors in movies like “The Incredible Journey,” and I always assumed that Disney’s “true life adventure” nature films like “Jungle Cat” and “The Living Desert” included staged scenes, including battles between animals that were far from spontaneous.

Disney, however, is in the entertainment business. When wildlife documentaries announce themselves as real, they should be real, and if the producers staged sequences, rented animals, or used M&M’s, they have an ethical obligation to tell the audience. This goes for sounds as well. After all, there are people who think big snakes make the roaring sound the CGI villain makes in “Anaconda”; the fake sounds in nature films mislead many more. Real life footage is supposed to teach us something, not stuff our heads full of more misinformation.

That’s the job of CNN and NBC.

There is a lot of amazing wildlife footage that is not staged; the question now, in light of Palmer’s book, is how we are supposed to identify the fakes. The sound effects are a good clue. I will say this: if I find out that the story of Christian the lion was faked, I’m going to be angry.

But there is always “the battle at Kruger.”

[Thanks to Lauren Larson for the tip.]