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When Wildlife Documentaries Harass: Ethics Required in Environmental Filmmaking Too

By Chris Palmer

From Nick Stringer's 2009 film 'Turtle: The Incredible Journey'

This article was co-authored by Chris Palmer and filmmaker Shannon Lawrence.

Documentary filmmaking requires acknowledgement and application of industry ethics such as integrity of content and respectful, non-exploitative filming relationships. Audiences are typically unconcerned about filmmaking ethics, particularly in reference to science and educational films. It is, however, under this categorical umbrella that some of the most serious ethical grievances have taken place.

Wildlife and environmental filmmaking involves perhaps the most complicated issues of ethics due to the position of its subjects. Animals cannot control their media representation, nor can they give consent to their relationships with filmmakers. Why the concern about ethics in wildlife filmmaking? The violations of ethics in this field have an influence on the spread of educational information and human-environmental relations.

In their nascency, documentaries served to allow general audiences to experience the world. Wildlife and environmental filmmaking still serves this purpose in many respects, bringing human audiences across the country—and the globe—face to face with species, behaviors and habitats that few would have the luxury to see otherwise.

We have the fortune of having entire television channels and film festivals dedicated to wildlife and environmental filmmaking. The media that have emerged from this field have brought audiences stories of animal survival and the beauty and diversity of Earth’s habitats right into our living rooms and local cineplexes. But what happens when wildlife filmmaking goes bad? Cases of animal cruelty and harassment and audience deception have both been evidenced in the history of environmental film—and I have been equally guilty of these offenses in my own career.

The theater was packed with over 500 people, all of whom, judging by the fervor of the applause and the level of excitement in the room, seemed to have enjoyed our IMAX film Wolves. The film showed close-up shots of a wolfpack interacting in complex, subtle ways, as well as the nurturing, cooperative way each wolf assumed its share of responsibility for the welfare of the pack.

The film was designed to combat the disinformation campaigns of the ranching and hunting lobbies, which portrayed wolves as vicious killers. We wanted to focus attention on the interactions of a family group and on the important communal task of rearing a litter of pups. Few people know how communal and caring wolves are. They’re fierce and determined hunters, true, but the point of Wolves was to show something deeper; however, filming the intimate lives of wild wolves is virtually impossible because they do not tolerate the presence of people. Moreover, if we did film wild wolves, our footage would skew toward predation and pack feeding because those are relatively easier shots to capture, but that would give viewers the wrong impression. As a result, we made the decision to work with captive wolves.

Before the screening, I had given a rousing speech to inspire the audience to support wolf conservation. After the film was over, I opened up the floor to questions from the audience. A mass of hands went up and I pointed to a preteen boy. “How did you film the mother wolf in its den?” he asked.

My heart sank. Answering truthfully meant betraying the trade secrets of wildlife filmmaking. I was not eager to reveal that the “den” in which the mother wolf suckled her newborn pups was an artificial set. Nor did I want to admit that we used captive wolves rented from a game farm for some of the scenes. If I exposed such secrets, people might feel cheated. By industry standards, we’d done nothing unethical. In fact, we’d made the ethical choice. Renting captive wolves allows filmmakers to avoid disturbing wild populations and potentially habituating them to human beings. Wild wolves would be deeply affected by prolonged and intrusive filming requirements.

But we’d deceived the audience all the same, and now the boy’s question put trust on the table. In that instant, I decided to come clean with an apology and an explanation: I owed my audience transparency, not duplicity. I explained that the wolves were captive and the den scenes staged—that as realistic as they were, they still weren’t the real thing.

Even though I told the audience that it was for the good of the wolves, I could feel their visceral disappointment as I talked. Sure, we’d included the game farm in the credits and disclosed in the small print that we’d worked with captive wolves, but how many people actually read the credits of a wildlife movie? The audience had naturally assumed the wolves featured in the film were wild. We had intended to give that impression.

That single question marked a profound shift in the way I thought about my work. Staging and manipulation were no longer clever and necessary filmmaking skills; to me, they had become simply unethical. I could not continue to dupe audiences and look myself in the eye in the mirror every morning. I was ashamed of the tricks I’d used in the past, and I knew the future had to change.

My experiences with ethics and wildlife and environmental filmmaking are not at all uncommon. While we strive to use ethical practices, there are numerous instances of ethical transgressions, ranging from lack of transparency and audience deception to animal harassment and abuse.

Animal abuse and harassment is used to provoke desired behaviors on film, and often occurs with no witnesses to point it out to audiences. Harassing animals can put both the animals and the production crew at physical risk. Additionally, harassment can lead to a disruption of normal animal behavior; this creates unrealistic expectations for viewers on animal behavior. On-screen harassment, which occurs at times with “reality” programming and films with thrill narratives, creates an inappropriate representation of human-animal relations.

Animal Fight Night (Nat Geo Wild, 2013) is a series that features battles between some of the biggest and fiercest animals in the world, including lions, hippopotami, wolves, bison and crocodiles. National Geographic claims the programs will deliver “the bright lights, drama and testosterone of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.” To create the series, National Geographic hired a British production company called Arrow Media, which, in turn, quietly put the word out to young, hungry cinematographers that they were looking for exciting animal fight footage. This resulted in the following post on Facebook on March 26, 2014, from an impecunious young filmmaker hoping to get hired by Arrow Media: “I need to film bobcats and mountain lions fighting, and also red squirrels, coach whips and raccoons fighting. I’m looking for help.”

The filmmaker’s Facebook post resulted in an explosion of outrage over young filmmakers being pressured to behave unethically by staging animal fights. As more and more filmmakers and photographers weighed in and the discussion became more heated, the original post was suddenly deleted by the young filmmaker, who clearly regretted the post and the uproar and embarrassment it had caused.

In fairness to Nat Geo Wild, they would argue that no one is under pressure, directly or indirectly, to force or fake money shots that are simply not there. They would say that they can’t stop everyone from acting in unethical ways and that they have put into place as many controls as possible to discourage bad behavior. Writer Jason Goldman observed, “Nat Geo Wild has largely bucked the trend [in science television in America] of misleading or lying outright to viewers.” Yet, as can be seen with Animal Fight Night, the pressure on Nat Geo Wild to take risks to get high ratings is intense.

Ratings and money can be a powerful driving force towards unethical actions in filming. Animal harassment and cruelty are only the tip of the iceberg. Average audiences would seldom suspect that wildlife films and television programming would prey on audience trust through deliberate deception.

Megalodon (Discovery Channel, 2013) aired as a part of the network’s popular Shark Week event. It featured interviews with “scientists,” as well as “archival footage” and “scientific evidence” to convince viewers that a 60-foot prehistoric shark thought to be extinct was still roaming the oceans and leaving a blood-soaked trail of havoc in its wake. But the scientists were actors, the footage was fake, the evidence fabricated, the photos falsified, and the whole program from start to finish a mockery of science. The program won huge ratings—4.8 million viewers, the best opening for Shark Week in its 26-year history; however, many people were outraged by Discovery’s betrayal of its long-held and founding educational mission.

Megalodon was a work of complete fiction presented as solid science, and there was no clear disclaimer to alert viewers to what was really happening. Three disclaimers were buried in the end credits and were very difficult to read, but none acknowledged that the program was a fabrication. Any viewer would reasonably think he or she was watching a serious piece of investigative journalism. These networks and their fraudulent documentaries only increase ignorance and fear when they could be changing the course of history by bringing true science education to a broad audience.

Whereas inaccurate portrayals of animals and fake documentaries might irritate some portion of viewers, old-fashioned staging, fabrication and trickery would likely irritate a large number of viewers as well—if they knew about it. Wildlife filmmakers often pretend that captive and controlled animals from game farms are wild and free-roaming, stage events to make them look real, and use computer graphics to manipulate images.

Turtle: The Incredible Journey (2009), a film about loggerhead turtles, is billed as a documentary. Viewers assume they’re watching genuine footage of this highly threatened species. In fact, the film is full of impossible-to-detect and unannounced computer-generated imagery and special effects. The film, which has a commendably strong conservation message, tells the amazing story of a little loggerhead turtle that follows the path of her ancestors on one of the most extraordinary journeys in the natural world.

Although the film is scientifically accurate, viewers have no way of knowing what is real and what is digitally manipulated. Is it ethical to have so much artifice in a so-called documentary? If viewers learn they’ve been lied to (that much of the film is computer-generated) they might feel betrayed or even be suspicious of the entire film, undermining its excellent conservation message.

Trust is a vulnerability of audiences that is often taken advantage of by broadcasters in order to achieve desperately desired higher ratings. Miseducation and proliferation of erroneous beliefs are common and unfortunate occurrences. Deception is much more dangerous when education is at stake. When the lines between communication and pure entertainment are blurred, it can lead to consequences for the greater documentary medium.

Documentaries have the potential to serve as potent sources of information. What happens when the message is blurred or lost in the aim for ratings and financial rewards? Are broadcasters and wildlife filmmakers advocates for the species they feature in their documentaries, or is their role simply to inform and entertain? Should they be passive observers or conservation activists? These concerns are not limited to wildlife and environmental filmmaking. The steps taken to maintain documentary integrity have a direct correlation on the impact, relevance and reputability of material with audiences. How do we, as both documentary filmmakers and media consumers, combat these problems?

There are already signs of change. Newly installed Discovery Channel president Rich Ross recently acknowledged the troublesome and deceptive nature of its sensationalistic programming, and promised to return to more accurate and educational programming. But there is more we can do as both filmmakers and as media watchers.

We as filmmakers have a duty to make responsible and accurate programming. We must be aware of the impact that media has on the spread of public information and how in the case of wildlife and environmental films, this can aid or harm the featured subjects. Filmmakers must also re-establish audience trust and always use reputable consultants and experts. We must abide by a policy of transparency and honesty. Honesty is the key to building trust with audiences, and can lead to a new era of wildlife filmmaking in which conscientious filmmakers engage conscientious viewers in a real dialogue about the state of our shared planet.

As media consumers, we have a hand in driving the programming and exhibition markets. We must speak out against unacceptable media practices via viewing habits. One movie ticket or one television box set can be powerful in a collective context. Use social media; post on the network, program or studio Facebook pages, or use a Twitter hashtag to get people talking. Calling a network or studio out can cause change, or at least a consideration of its media practices. Let’s look forward to making strides in ethical practices within the industry.


Professor Chris Palmer is the director of American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking and author of the newly published book Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker: The Challenges of Staying Honest in an Industry Where Ratings Are King. Shannon Lawrence is a filmmaker and MFA candidate at American University.