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Into the Wild, Ethically: Nature Filmmakers Need a Code of Conduct

By Chris Palmer

A young leopard photographed in the Serengeti, Tanzania, during filming on the 1991 production 'Sunlight and Shadow: The Dappled Cats for Survival Anglia.' Photo by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone.

As an 11-year old in 1958, I watched the Disney film White Wilderness. We see a cute little bear cub lose its footing on a steep, snow-covered mountainside and fall faster and faster until it's tumbling down totally out of control. It eventually stops falling after banging hard into rocks. The audience laughs because we assume it is totally natural and authentic and it's funny in a slapstick kind of way–at least at first. In fact, it is totally staged top to bottom, including the use of a man-made artificial mountain and captive bear cubs.

When I was a teenager growing up in England, Life Magazine carried a prize-winning sequence of photographs showing a leopard hunting a baboon. It was dramatic and thrilling. The final picture showed the leopard crushing the baboon's skull in its jaws. Later it was shown to be all staged with a captive leopard and a captive and terrified baboon.

When I first got into television in my early 30s, I brought home a film I had just completed to show my wife, Gail. She especially liked a close-up scene of a grizzly bear splashing through a stream and asked me how we were able to record the sound of water dripping off the grizzly's paws. I had to admit that my talented sound guy had filled a basin full of water and recorded the thrashings he made with his hands and elbows. He then matched the video of the bear walking in the stream with the sounds he had recorded. Gail was shocked, offended and outraged–and called me "a big fake" and a "big phony-baloney." I had made a documentary after all, which led her to expect authenticity and truth.

What ethical issues do these three stories illustrate? First, audience deception through staging and manipulation. Second, cruelty to animals. And third, a more subtle ethical issue but a vital one nonetheless: Do wildlife films encourage conservation?

Animal harassment and cruelty have been pervasive in wildlife filming for decades. This harassment can take the form of everything from simply getting too close to wild animals and disturbing their habitat to deliberate violence. In the old days, if a filmmaker wanted to capture a hunting scene of a bobcat chasing a rabbit, it was standard practice to get the shot by the use of invisible filament around the rabbit's neck or leg to artificially slow it down. Luckily, such overt abuse is now uncommon. However, many on-camera hosts like Jeff Corwin, Bear Grylls or the late Steve Irwin still grab and harass animals in order to create entertainment.

Unfortunately, however, the physical abuse of animals is only one of several major problems in the wildlife film industry. Far too many producers have resorted to creating "nature porn"–productions focusing solely on the blood, guts and sex of the animal kingdom. Graphic footage of shark attacks and feeding frenzies might make for thrilling entertainment, but it is irresponsible. Programs like Untamed and Uncut and Man vs. Wild depict animals as menacing at a time when these animals face constant threat. By misleading audiences and inspiring fear and terror, these TV programs are effectively discouraging conservation.

When filmmakers depict wild animals as murderous and evil, they make it all the more difficult to convince the public of the need for protecting these animals. Sharks, for example, face dire threats from the pollution of their habitat and the disgusting practice of shark finning for shark fin soup. If viewers think of sharks only as killers, they are much less likely to act to protect and conserve them.

Concerns over ethics have been with us throughout the history of wildlife filmmaking. But it was a tall, eccentric Englishman, Jeffery Boswall, who began a systematic study of the issue starting in the 1970s. Boswall, born in 1931, spent nearly three decades as a producer for the BBC Natural History Unit and is one of the industry's most probing and illuminating thinkers.

In a 1988 paper on wildlife filmmaking ethics, "The Moral Pivots of Wildlife Filmmaking," Boswall asserted that anything that made an animal behave unnaturally–for example, baiting it or giving it food it does not normally eat--constitutes audience deception. He points out that introducing one animal to another it does not normally interact with–for example, a wolverine and a python--is deceptive. So is having the film crew behave in a way that disturbs an animal's behavior–for example, frightening a bird off its eggs by moving too fast near its nest.

Other deceptions include the temptations to exaggerate, overdramatize and sentimentalize. Boswall describes the common sin of anthropomorphism–or attributing human characteristics to animals–as "a kind of lying" because it teaches audiences to misunderstand the real nature of animals.

His definition of audience deception is sweeping. In his mind, it includes pretending that a recording of a bird's song was made at the same time as the pictures for that scene. Or recording the flapping of an umbrella and pretending it's the noise made by a bird's wings. Boswall claims that even music can introduce a lie. If you accompany footage of animal behavior with music that suggests that the animal is behaving in a human way (for example, by making it look as though the animal is dancing or feeling romantic), then "you are deceiving the people who are experiencing the film."

Though these all qualify as deceptions in Boswall's mind, they are not all necessarily bad. Boswall believes it's up to individual filmmakers to decide where to draw the line–but warns that audiences might be surprised to know where filmmakers have been drawing it recently. Even strongly conservation-minded filmmakers sometimes bait sea creatures with chum (an oily mix of fish bait and blood), which can lead to unnatural feeding frenzies, or use bright spotlights to film lions hunting at night, which give lions an unfair advantage. And if you see a bear feeding on a deer carcass in a film, it is almost certainly a tame bear searching for hidden jellybeans in the entrails of the deer's stomach. The candy gives the impression that the proud carnivore is feasting on a fresh kill.

Let me now relate another story–this one about Randy Wimberg, a highly capable and experienced cinematographer. A few years ago, he was with his dive team at Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific filming wildlife in an area known as Shark Pass, which has a large congregation of reef sharks.

Crew members built a cage to protect him from danger, but they removed some of the panels to give the camera an unobstructed view. The plan was for Wimberg to be in the cage while someone in the nearby support boat threw chum into the water to attract the sharks.

He climbed into the cage and was eased out on a tether about 15 feet from the boat. When a deckhand threw in the chum, reef sharks quickly showed up in large numbers. Some of the chum drifted into the cage. Wimberg watched helplessly as frenzied sharks began crashing into the cage, tearing at chunks of food caught in the wire mesh. Soon, more than 30 sharks were competing for food that was either stuck to the cage or drifting through it.

Suddenly, a shark shot right through the gap and exited out the other side of the cage, grazing Wimberg as it passed. He tried to remain calm, the camera still rolling. He was frantically batting away sharks with his camera, but there were too many of them and too much chum.

Another shark shot through the gap. To Wimberg's horror, it didn't pass smoothly out the other side. Instead the shark ended up in the bottom of the cage and started thrashing wildly. Wimberg tried to curl up in the corner of the cage to escape the frightened animal. He knew that the shark felt very threatened and would use the only defense it had–its teeth and jaws.

Wimberg desperately attempted to push the animal up toward the exit with his camera, but that didn't work. He decided his only chance was to get himself out. As he edged toward the opening in the cage, his teammates in the boat saw what was happening and began raising the cage to the surface. And before the shark could get in a position to bite, Wimberg scrambled out of the cage and into the boat. The shark was released unhurt.

What went wrong? Well, there's one thing I haven't told you: The producer had positioned another cameraman in a protective chain-mail suit about 20 feet below the shark cage to capture all the action. In fact, Wimberg's brush with disaster became a high point in the film. My interpretation of this incident is that it was all about getting the money shot. The producer knew that the more dramatic the action, the more successful the film would be. This is why the producer kept telling the deckhand to keep throwing in more chum. Wimberg's life was endangered for the sake of getting exciting footage to help push up the show's ratings.

Two other points: First, the film's audiences were misled. They didn't know about the chum, so many viewers went away thinking that such frenzied feeding behavior happens naturally. And two, the cause of conservation was ill served. At a time when shark populations are plummeting worldwide, sharks were being unfairly portrayed as ferocious attackers.

You could argue that what went wrong in the incident with Wimberg is fairly obvious, but making ethically correct choices in wildlife filmmaking isn't always obvious. Consider the following six scenarios:

First, suppose you are making a film about chimps. You know that violence (or any extreme behavior) fascinates people and that chimps sometimes hunt for prey, such as other primates. You know that viewers will be shocked, even horrified, by the bloodthirsty brutality of the chimps, and the ratings will be big. Yet you also know that meat makes up only about two percent of the chimpanzees' diet. Mostly they feed on fruits, leaves and other plant material. By serving up a series of hunts, your film shows a far more violent picture of chimpanzee nature than is actually the case. It gives a wrong impression. Is the film unethical?

In my view, this may not be unethical, but it bothers me. I'd say don't make the film only about the hunts. The film has to be more balanced, even though the ratings might suffer.

Second, imagine you are a producer and you want a shot of a spider eating a fly. It's obvious you have to stage it because you don't have the money to wait around for weeks for it to happen naturally. But how far will you go with staging? For example, you also want a shot of a boa constrictor eating a monkey. Do you stage that as well? In other words, capture a boa constrictor, capture a monkey, put them in an enclosure and film the resulting predation? It's routine predatory behavior and happens all the time, and your film will promote conservation. Do the ends justify the means? Is it ethical to stage it?

I'd say, definitely don't do this. It's cruel and unacceptable, but you'll pay a price in lower ratings.

Third, imagine you're in Africa with Jeff Corwin and your goal is for him to find a rare lizard, not seen for 25 years. This is to be the climax of the film. You search for days with no luck, but finally the rare lizard is found–not by Corwin, but by a local African tracker who barely speaks English. You put the animal back where it was found, and let Corwin "discover" it and act surprised for the camera, thus capturing for your film an emotional highpoint. Is that bit of acting by Corwin unethical?

I'd say we shouldn't lie to audiences. Corwin should interview the tracker about his find even though the film may now have a reduced emotional impact and lower ratings.

Fourth, suppose you are in the field filming komodo dragons. You've heard that a komodo dragon was seen swimming out to sea to feed on an unfortunate goat that had fallen off a local boat and was drowning. It's the first time a komodo dragon has been seen swimming and hunting at sea and it would be a real coup to reproduce the behavior for the camera. Getting this sequence for your film would bring you a great deal of prestige, help your career and help pay to send your daughter to college. Are you willing to put live bait (a goat) in the water to help you get the shot? If you do, would you tell the audience, or keep it a secret?

I would say that putting a live goat in the water to seduce a komodo dragon to hunt is cruel and unacceptable.

Fifth, continuing with the last scenario, imagine that although the cameraman captured the sequence using a pole-cam (a camera on the end of a pole, so the cameraman doesn't need to be in the water) to add jeopardy to the "making-of" piece at the end of the film, you as the editor have been asked to cut together shots of the komodo dragon swimming with shots of the cameraman filming underwater–to add a sense of danger to the sequence. The shots of the underwater cameraman were actually filmed in another location with no komodo dragons in the water, so the sequence you are being asked to cut is untruthful. Is this type of deceit acceptable?

I'd say don't do this, because it's lying; if you do it, be open about it.

Sixth and finally, suppose you're filming tigers hunting an antelope, which is extremely difficult to see. You come across a young antelope that is lying quietly in the grass having been abandoned by its mother. It's the final afternoon of the shoot, your budget is exhausted, the weather is closing in, you have totally failed so far to obtain any money shots, and you are very worried about your job. You also know that there is a tiger only 500 meters away. Is it ethical for you to herd the young antelope towards the tiger knowing that without its mother, it will die anyway?

I'd say don't do that because you can't be 100 percent sure that the antelope has been abandoned by its mother.

These are tough questions, especially if you are a filmmaker with a family to support and a retirement to save for. What can we learn from the stories I've described and from those six dilemmas? As I've already indicated, there are three ethical issues with wildlife films:

First, Are audiences deceived and misled, and if so, does it matter? When does legitimate filmmaking artifice become unacceptable deception? I'm thinking here of fake sounds, the use of CGI to manipulate images, and captive animals that appear free-roaming. Recently, I saw amazing footage of a cougar hunting down a bear cub. It looked genuine and not fake in any way, but in fact, it had all been carefully scripted and shot with trained animals from game farms.

Second, Are wild animals harassed and disturbed during filming, and does it matter? Recently, I learned of a filmmaker who darted a hyena and then slit its skin open to implant a GPS transmitter underneath so he could track it and thus film it more easily.

And third, is conservation advanced by these films? Do they matter? It would be facile and misleading to claim that The Cove hasn't yet stopped the killing of dolphins in Taiji, Japan; Food Inc. has not yet led viewers to change their eating habits; and The End of the Line has not yet reduced over-fishing in our oceans–facile and misleading because where you stand on that issue depends on where you sit. If you're a dolphin in Taiji about to be butchered, then you might well think the film has failed to advance conservation. But if you're a viewer moved by the film to demonstrate outside the barbed wire surrounding the cove where the slaughter takes place, and the press is covering you and more attention is being brought to the issue, then the film may seem like a success in terms of conservation.

When I first got into wildlife filmmaking, I naively thought that the number of people watching a program told me something about the conservation impact. Of course, it doesn't. Ratings (or the box office results) and conservation impact are very different. I also naively thought that everybody viewing the program would be influenced in some way, but most people watching are already card-carrying environmentalists whose views are not changed by the program.

What made me question the conservation achievements of environmental and wildlife films is hearing producers claim smugly that their films have done great things for conservation, but when asked for evidence, point to a few admiring e-mails that they received–which may have been written by people already dedicated to conservation. Or they point to impressive ratings or box office numbers, as if the number of viewers is synonymous with conservation.

Raising awareness is good, but hard results are what really count. If dolphins in Taiji are still being slaughtered at the same rate, it's fair to raise the question: What good did The Cove do? Yes, there was more awareness after it won an Oscar, but has the film actually produced conservation results?

One approach is to pose that question to the viewers who made a film a box office success. After all, if one viewer changes eating habits after watching Food, Inc., then that viewer has a legitimate right to claim that the film advanced conservation. But it gets tricky. Many viewers who are moved by a film may rate it highly in conservation effectiveness terms, but have to admit, when pressed, that actually nothing changed in their lives because of it. They may have found it to be a richly rewarding but temporary distraction, and after a few hours basically forgot about it. If they didn't take any action, then nothing has changed. They were simply entertained.

I fear that environmental and wildlife films don't advance conservation as much as they could or should. If films are really to make a difference, then they must be one component of an overall campaign involving many different media platforms and social action. I'm delighted that entities like Participant Media, Working Films, The Good Pitch and ITVS encourage documentary filmmakers to make activist outreach and partnerships with NGOs an essential component of their distribution process.

Without wildlife films, people would have little knowledge of wildlife, but whether such programs actually promote conservation is still open to debate. Too many films fail to mention conservation, and some even imply an anti-conservation message by demonizing animals and encouraging us to fear and hate them.

Filmmakers have a responsibility to promote conservation because it is the morally right thing for them to do, especially since they exploit the resource to earn a living. Besides, filmmakers have a vested interest in conservation: It's impossible to make wildlife films when animals have gone extinct.

In sum, film has such unique potential for impacting public opinion that it is irresponsible to rely on sensationalized, inaccurate, destructive programming. The ethical questions related to wildlife filmmaking are not simple, but we must at least openly confront the issue of ethics instead of constantly pushing for nothing but ratings, no matter the cost. Wildlife filmmakers have a responsibility to depict the natural world accurately and in a way that will inspire people to preserve it.

Chris Palmer is a professor, speaker, author, and an environmental and wildlife film producer who, over the past 30 years, has led the production of more than 300 hours of original programming for primetime television and the giant screen film industry. In 2004, he joined American University's full-time faculty as Distinguished Film Producer in Residence at the School of Communication. There he founded (and currently directs) the Center for Environmental Filmmaking. His book, Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom, was published in 2010 by Sierra Club Books and has been widely praised.