TV is a wildlife lover's Garden of Eden. Networks like Animal Planet, Discovery, National Geographic, NAT GEO Wild and PBS fill their schedules with documentaries and critter reality programs. These shows promise a real glimpse into the behavior of wild animals. But just how authentic are they?
"There's a degree of audience deception that goes on," says veteran wildlife producer Chris Palmer, whose recent book, Shooting in the Wild, reveals some of the trickery. "Audiences just have no idea that sometimes they're watching captive animals from game farms. They think they're watching wild animals and the unvarnished natural world without any manipulation or staging or fakery. There needs to be more transparency."
Fred Kaufman, the award-winning producer of the PBS series Nature, admits that he occasionally uses captive animals to depict certain behaviors. "It's usually when shooting them in the wild could be too dangerous for either the animal or the camera person," he says. For a Nature installment called Christmas in Yellowstone, Kaufman felt it would be "foolish to take a camera into a hibernating bear's den." His solution: Build a bear den at Washington State University, use a domesticated bear and do the filming there. The producer says he provided an explanation about the process on the program's website. "But we didn't need to stop our show and say, 'By the way, here's how we did it.'"
Blue-chip international coproductions like Discovery's Planet Earth and Life and National Geographic's Great Migrations (airing November 7, 9 and 14) can cost up to $3.5 million an episode, giving filmmakers the freedom to spend months waiting for the money shot — say, cheetahs working together to bring down an ostrich. But even they make some compromises. While National Geographic Television's Standards and Practices chief Scott Wyerman insists, "We are in the business of telling compelling stories based on the real behavior of animals," he admits their 2007 film An Arctic Tale did not follow one polar bear and one walrus family for seven years as purported, but several families. "We used different animals, though no behavior was faked. The composite was acknowledged at the end of the movie."
And what you hear is not always connected to what you see on screen. Beefing up the actual field sounds is a common form of artifice. A wolf's excited howls could be an animal recording. An eagle's beating wings? That's really an umbrella opening and closing, says Palmer. In these cases, don't expect disclaimers.
Furthermore, animal-attack shows often lease animals, like wolves and bears, that are trained to interact with humans to mimic free-roaming creatures. "We do shoot reenactments with working animals on shows like Fatal Attractions," says Jason Carey, a vice president and producer at Animal Planet. "We don't do that on actual wildlife shows like River Monsters."
National Geographic's Wyerman confirms that they use habituated animals for reenactments on shows like Hunter and Hunted. "We're not going to get a real wild animal to attack a human being," he says. "We shoot it in such a stylized way that viewers will understand that it's not a documentary."
Even the great BBC natural-history filmmaker David Attenborough admitted that in a 1997 documentary, footage of a polar bear purportedly giving birth in the Arctic was actually shot in a zoo. But overall, should viewers be worried about the authenticity of the nature shows they watch? Palmer is cautiously optimistic. "There's a lot of things going on that need to be publicly discussed," he says. "If we don't reform it, then eventually the industry will come under fire."