Is That Wildlife Documentary Lying to You?

A new book, 'Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker,' blows the lid off the fakery rampant in the industry, some of which puts animals at risk.
(Photo: Elliot Neep/Getty Images)
Mar 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Chris Palmer wants you to ask a simple question the next time you watch a wildlife documentary or television show: “How did they get that shot?”

The answer might not always be that simple. Did the filmmakers really come across a whale in the middle of the big blue ocean, or did they pump recordings of whale calls into the water to attract whales to them? Did they sneak up close enough to wild wolves to get footage of them in their den, or did they use captive wolves on a game farm? Does the shot of a bear running through a river sound accurate because the camera crew also captured great audio, or were the splashes dubbed in later in the studio?

Palmer knows all of these tricks because he has used them himself. A wildlife filmmaker for 30 years, Palmer has produced dozens of films, TV shows, and TV documentaries. In his new book, Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker, he details how the industry demanded more exciting—and less accurate—shows, all in the name of ratings.

In the process, he said, both viewers and animals suffered. Some programs presented unclear or untrue information—he’s particularly critical of Shark Week—or animals were tricked, hounded, or harmed to get “the shot.”

In his book, Palmer says all wildlife shows should fulfill three criteria: They shouldn’t deceive the audience, they should have a conservation value, and they should never harm or harass wildlife while they are being made. He said many of today’s programs fail to live up to those three standards.

Take the recent Eaten Alive program. In that Discovery Channel special from last December, host Paul Rosolie said he would be eaten by an anaconda. The show was widely criticized and with good reason, according to Palmer.

“There are so many things wrong with this,” he said. “One is the harm to the animal. The other is that it never happened, so we were lied to. It also carried the message that anacondas are dangerous and man-eaters. Of course the animals just want to be left alone.”

Palmer also cited many programs, such as Animal Planet’s River Monsters, for harassing animals in a sensationalized manner. Research has shown that hooking large fish with bait and struggling with them until they are exhausted—as is done on River Monsters and shows such as Monster Fish and Shark Hunters—can cause great stress for the animals. Many even die after they are released. Palmer also criticized the programs for calling their subjects “monsters” and other derogatory terms.

Most other examples aren’t so blatant. Palmer said it often takes a trained eye to notice that shots were taken under controlled conditions, or that animals aren’t behaving naturally, or that images have been enhanced with computer graphics.

“It’s hard for viewers,” Palmer said. “How do they know if an animal is being harassed? How do they know if it’s come from a game farm? How do they know if it’s been badly treated? It’s hard to know. That’s why I’ve written this book. I’m trying to spread more knowledge about this so people will be skeptical.”

Because the programs themselves typically won’t provide the answers, Palmer encourages viewers to turn to social media.

“Write to the networks and ask, ‘How did you get that shot?’ or ‘Were those animals well treated?’ ” he said.

He suggested using hashtags such as #FakeTV or #WildlifeFilmEthics to point out or question shows that may be mistreating animals.

Although he said some TV programming has gotten worse over the past five years—in particular the genre typified by shows such as Yukon Men and Rattlesnake Republic, which often depict nature as something horrifying and deadly—Palmer praised works made by those who behave ethically. “They’re usually made by people like Louie Psihoyos, who directed The Cove, who are dedicated to conservation and don’t want to harass animals in any way.”

Even good people do bad things, as Palmer knows from his own experience.

“The business side of television seems to coerce them into behavior that harms wildlife, spreads misinformation, and coarsens society’s appreciation of nature,” he said.

He hopes that public attention can turn networks away from such ratings-grabbing material. “We need to persuade these channels to put more emphasis on conservation, on animal welfare, and on producing programs that are ethically made,” he said.