Nature documentaries are fun, interesting, and popular television staples. A new book reveals the dark side of these seemingly wholesome programs.
In “Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker, the Challengers of Staying Honest in an Industry Where Ratings are King,” author Chris Palmer takes a hard look at the business of capturing animals on film.
The book was released in February 2015, and it continues to stay relevant, especially following the close of the ratings season for nature documentaries.
The popular nature show, “Shark Week,” has seen its share of criticism for airing sensational programs. Palmer says the Discovery Channel isn’t alone in exploiting its animal subjects to try to suck in more viewers.
Palmer dives into the ethical quandaries he struggled with during his time producing nature documentaries. Despite improving attitudes on animal welfare, Palmer says filmmakers still bait, harass, and chase animals. In more extreme cases, they drug, maim, or even kill wildlife just to capture them in frame. Palmer describes one filmmaker who made a practice of tranquilizing animals and implanting them with GPS trackers, in order to easily locate them later.
Even when not directly harming animals out in the field, Palmer argues filmmakers can indirectly hurt animals by casting them in the wrong light during post-production.
Palmer blasts the industry standard of portraying animals as something to be feared and exploited. He also criticizes several popular shows, including “Duck Dynasty” and “Swamp People.” As he sees it, these shows glorify the killing of animals.
Palmer’s views are often extreme and uncompromising. His book will probably even alienate conservationists and animal lovers. For example, his opposition to hunting placed him at odds with groups like the National Wildlife Federation, which fired him from the film division he founded.
Palmer doesn’t criticize the intentions of his fellow filmmakers. In fact, he says many get into the business because of their love of animals and the desire to educate the public and push for conservation of wildlife. Many, however, get lost in the relentless chase for the best and most compelling shot, often at the expense of the animals themselves.
Palmer says filmmakers can resolve some of the issues with better practices and equipment. He suggests they hire scientists to consult on the production and use powerful zoom lenses, camera traps, and drones to film animals from a respectable distance.
Filmmakers will also need an attitude adjustment. Palmer says the problems often stem from trying to find the right balance between entertainment and education. An overly educational program is considered too preachy and can turn off viewers.
On the other hand, some shows tend to focus too much on sensationalism and fail to teach an audience anything. There is overwhelming pressure to focus more on ratings than the well-being of the animal in front of the lens.
As for the most famous nature documentary, “Shark Week,” the Discovery Channel pledged to make this year’s programming more ethical. Some would argue “Shark Week” didn’t go far enough to answer the allegations it harassed and vilified its animal stars. It’s clear the network at least heard the complaints and took steps to correct them.
Palmer says that the only way nature documentaries will improve is if their viewers call for change. Despite the clamor for mindless entertainment, well-informed viewers still want the truth. Their voices will push networks to tell a compelling story. This keeps audiences glued to the screen, while inspiring them about nature long after they’ve turned off the TV.