I’ve really been battling to get started on a post I wanted to do about wildlife the other day. Every time I sit down and start writing, I get bogged down in drifts of facts and figures that anyone can look up on Wikipedia. By the time I get to the interesting parts, I’m two pages in, and the only person still reading would be the one you don’t want to end up next to at dinner parties. You know the one; after waiting just long enough to build up a truly awkward silence, he will turn, look you not-quite-straight in the eye, fix you with a panicked grin and ask “Do you know how many teeth an otter has got?” I’ve forgotten how to say anything about something that really interests me. I blame television.
When my parents finally joined the twentieth century and got us a television (I must have been about 12 or so), they used to have wildlife documentaries on every Sunday afternoon. The emphasis was always on the animals. Crack teams of dedicated naturalist/photographers used to head off into the wild for years to capture hard-won footage of untouched nature at its best.
They came up with fantastic and inventive ways of getting their shots without interfering with their subjects. The best of them were narrated by David Attenborough. His plummy English accent and calm delivery acted as a perfect foil for the amazing things happening on the screen. More than anything else he was the great observer, standing off on one side with us, the viewers, sharing our wonder and pleasure.
My father and I used to settle in to watch these almost every Sunday. Not for entertainment, but more as a competitive sport. My father is a very well-read man, and as anyone who has had to live with one knows, 12 year old boys know everything.
The fact that a game was afoot was never mentioned and rules never laid out, but we both knew precisely what was happening. Unspoken points were awarded for identifying the animal on screen, the answers being shouted out well before the narrator could even clear his throat. If my mother ever thought there was anything odd about the love of her life and her only son sitting in front of the TV shouting “Sifaka!” at each other, she had the grace never to mention it. And then I went off to boarding school.
Life moved on. I went off to varsity, got a job, got married, and settled down. Life was busy, and I had other things on my mind. If I ever heard Attenborough’s crisp, clear voice coming from the TV room, I might wander through to catch the rest of the show, but for the most part my life was occupied with other things. And then one fine summer morning, my wife decided we were going to get satellite TV. I was overjoyed. Here was a chance to recapture one of the great pleasures of my childhood, and share it with my own children. On the first free weekend, I grabbed a bowl of popcorn, took over a couch, and settled in for a day of wildlife.
I was crushed. What has happened? When did everyone at the Discovery Channel forget what “documentary” meant? Instead of sending people off to capture the majesty and grandeur of the living planet, it seems that the good people at Discovery have decided that they have only two options. They can turn nature’s splendour into a crime investigation, or they can get some arsehole to jump onto a crocodile.
I was confronted with the first variety again just the other day. I went through and found my eight year old son staring at the TV with rapt attention. It turns out he was watching the Discovery Channel, which he hardly ever does. Curious, I joined him, and soon the truth emerged. They were having a theme day; “When nature attacks!!!”
Their first obstacle in this endeavour was the rather simple fact that nature doesn’t actually attack all that often, and when it does, there is hardly ever a camera handy. They have found a way around this, though. They have tracked down the cameraman from the Blair Witch Project and jacked him up on crystal meth.
In the show my son was watching (I think it was called “BLACK BEAR BLOODFEST 2012: DON’T GO DOWN TO THE WOODS TODAY!” but I might be wrong), some unfortunate had been bitten by a bear while out riding his bike.
No footage? No problem. They just sent crystal meth guy out to film a bicycle falling over. In his capable hands, this simple scene was turned into a harrowing ordeal, with a shaking camera slipping in and out of focus, while a man screamed himself hoarse on the soundtrack.
The rest of the show seemed to consist of the man who was bitten by a bear while riding his bike telling everyone that he was bitten by a bear while riding his bike, followed by a crack team of experts who, despite their obvious expertise, just couldn’t understand why a massive carnivore would possibly have a go at the skinny little pink creature dressed in Day-Glo lycra which had just come hurtling past its nose.
This might all have been a little dull were it not for the sterling work delivered once again by crystal meth camera guy. He’d popped down to the local zoo to film a bear yawning. The product of his unique skill was jumpy and jagged enough to trigger an epileptic fit. They played this every three minutes. Dubbed over with a medley of roars, growls and screams, it was enough to leave me needing a stiff drink.
This wasn’t a great example of the genre though. One of those followed next: “STRIPED VENGEANCE! BLOOD IN THE SNOW!!!” (Again, my memory may be a little hazy). Two Russian scientists had gone out looking for Siberian tigers in a frozen forest. They had separated, and one of them, apparently surprisingly, had found one. Which proceeded to bite him in the leg.
The people at Discovery were gobsmacked. So mystified were they by this unexpected turn of events that they called in a special “wildlife attack investigation squad”. Here at last was a crack team of experts equipped to understand why a 250kg alpha predator should have a go at a defenceless piece of meat in the middle of its territory.
I love the idea. I hope they have special badges, like policemen. I can just picture the TV series:
Chief of the special wildlife attack investigation squad: “You’re getting too close on this one, Kowalski. It’s becoming personal. I’m gonna have to take you off the case”
Kowalski: “It is personal, chief! You’ll never understand what that tiger did to my family. I’m gonna get that bastard if it’s the last thing I do!”
Chief: “Your family lives in Wisconsin. The tiger is in Siberia. I hate to do this, Kowalski, but I’m gonna have to ask you for your badge. And your radio tracking device. I’m sorry. You’re a good wildlife attack investigation guy, but this time you’ve gone too far.”
Kowalski: “Fine. Take them. But I’m not letting this one go. I can’t sleep till I know why that meat eater tried to eat some meat!”
What fascinated me about this show was the fact that, of all the explanations offered by the special investigation squad, a simple “because it’s a freaking tiger” was never even suggested by anyone. I would imagine that they had that guy on the team when they started out. And fired him in the first week, after he asked, for the third time “Do you guys actually know what a predator is?”
I live in a country where people are still fairly often killed by wildlife. Hippos kill quite a few people down on the east coast, and in the bush large numbers of Mozambican refugees trying to cross over into South Africa through the Kruger Park at night are killed and eaten by lions. There is no such thing as a wildlife attack investigation squad. These deaths are distressing, but not mysterious.
The rest of my son’s day was filled with vampire bat attacks, snake bites, puma scalpings, and general wildlife induced mayhem. And he learned nothing. He had been taught before he was five that you leave wild animals alone, because you never know when they might turn on you, and when they do, even the small ones can hurt you very badly indeed. Perhaps I should put him forward as a consultant for the special wildlife attack investigation squad.
And then we come to the crocodile botherers. It all started with Steve Irwin. The first time I saw one of his shows, I was genuinely impressed. Here was a demonstrably insane man-boy, with an infectious enthusiasm for what he was doing, cheerfully hurling himself at one ton man-eating salt water crocodiles. He was so happy about doing this that you couldn’t help but smile. And he was the only one. It was all new and refreshing, and made for a nice bit of variation in the wildlife TV line-up. But then he threw himself at a stingray, and came second.
This did not, however, give the good people at Discovery pause for thought. It is impossible to get through a full day on their channel these days without seeing at least one vicious assault being launched on an innocent creature.
Crocodiles seem to come in for the most stick, but you can watch a variety of men in tight khaki shorts jump on, pick up, poke, squeeze, and just generally harass a wide variety of lizards, snakes, birds, insects, arachnids, mammals and fish.
Like crocodiles, the Discovery guys seem to harbour a special hatred for sharks. There are populations of great white sharks off the coast of Australia that spend so much time being hauled out of the water for wildlife documentaries that they have started to evolve lungs.
All this bullying of nature’s finest is done under the rather slim pretext of scientific investigation. This is just a lie. The other day, I watched a guy called Brady Barr (who usually manages to molest at least seven innocent crocodiles an episode) sit in a fibreglass hippo in the baking African sun for hours trying to poke a hippo with a sharpened stick. This was allegedly done to get a skin sample “for science”.
Pardon my French, but bullshit! Every Zoo it the world has a hippo or two in it. Getting a skin sample would involve leaning over a fence. Should a proper scientist want a sample from a wild hippo, they would simply shoot it with a hollow tipped dart designed for the purpose. Sneaking up on wild animals and stabbing them is not science, it’s the grown-up equivalent of a little boy tormenting an angry dog from the safety of the other side of a fence.
With all of these rather sad developments, I would imagine that if a young David Attenborough tried to get into today’s wildlife TV industry, he wouldn’t even make it through the first interview. I can just picture it: Two Discovery executives sit back in large leather seats. In front of them is an empty wooden chair. There is a quiet knock on the door, and in walks a tall, dapper young David Attenborough.
Executive number one: “Dave, is it? How ya doing? Have a seat.”
David Attenborough: “It’s David, actually. How do you do.”
Executive Number two: “We’re doing great. Let’s cut to the chase here, Dave. We believe you’ve come up with an idea for a new series. Tell us about it.”
David Attenborough: “David. Yes, well. What we are hoping to do is try to capture never-before-seen footage of wild animal behaviour. We have spent months coming up with exciting new ways of concealing our cameras so that we can shoot the animals as if we weren’t even there. Once we get the right sort of footage we will put it together with a voice-over talking the viewers through what it is they are seeing. I believe you were sent a few test clips of some elephants we had shot at a waterhole in Namibia. What we did was we made an old tree trunk out of fibreglass, and hid a cameraman inside. I’m sure you’ll agree the shots we got were quite exciting. We…”
Executive number one: “Yeah we saw the clips, Dave. Great stuff! We like your approach as a starting point, but obviously we will need to tweak things a little.”
David Attenborough: “What do you mean, tweak? You didn’t like the footage?”
Executive number two: “Oh we like the shots you got. Great for an introduction! What we really liked though was the whole sneaking aspect. Tell me, does that tree trunk have some kind of door?”
David Attenborough: “Well, the cameraman does need to get in and out, yes, but what…..”
Executive number one: “Great! Let’s get down to business here Dave. How badly do you want this? Are you ready to go the extra mile?”
David Attenborough: “Of course! I just don’t see what…”
Executive number two: “Here’s what I’m seeing, Dave: Screw the cameraman, he’s a nobody. We want you in the tree. With a great big sharpened stick. Can you fit a great big sharpened stick in there?”
David Attenborough: “A sharpened stick? I don’t see….”
Executive number one: “That’s excellent, Dave. What we’re gonna need you to do is this: once the elephants have settled down to drinking, we’re gonna have you sneak out through the door with your sharpened stick and poke an elephant in the ass.”
Executive number two: “For science, Dave. You’re gonna poke an elephant in the ass for science.”
David Attenborough: “But that’s just ridiculous. What has stabbing an elephant in the buttocks got to do with sc….”
Executive number one: “It’s about our viewers, Dave. No-one wants to watch a bunch of animals milling around anymore. It’s all about personalities these days. Our viewers want to see our guys driving science forward, really getting in there on the ground level!”
David Attenborough: “I understand what you’re saying, but I still don’t see why…”
Executive number two: “Don’t get hung up on the elephants, Dave. That’s just one avenue of scientific enquiry. I mean just look at that footage you brought us. There was a perfect moment when a giraffe bent down to drink…”
Executive number one: “We want you to hit a giraffe in the balls with a tennis racket, Dave.”
David Attenborough: “……………”
Executive number two: “For science. Our viewers really want…”
David Attenborough: “Just hang on a second. What the hell is going on here? We just want to teach people about wild animals. I went to the people at National Geographic and they wanted me to do things to a buffalo that are both immoral and illegal! I just can’t…”
Executive number one: “WHOA THERE! Back up a second Dave! What did you just say?”
David Attenborough: “A buffalo. The dirty buggers wanted me to….”
Executive number two: “THOSE BASTARDS!”
David Attenborough: “What?”
Executive number one: “Corporate espionage, Dave. Those bastards over at National Geographic are trying to steal our ideas! Somehow they must have found out about our new series “Dr Hulk Hogan: Buffalo Toucher!” We’re gonna have to cut this interview short, Dave. You’ve got some great stuff here. Maybe you can upload it to YouTube.”
David Attenborough: “Hang on a second. Did you just say that Hulk Hogan was a doctor?”
Executive number two: “Not yet, Dave. We’re working on it. We found an institution in the Bahamas that will award you a doctorate over the internet. Look, we’d really love to shoot the breeze, Dave, but we’ve really got to go and deal with this!”
Executive number one: “Yeah. Cheers Dave. Good luck with that YouTube thing!”
The two executives leap up and bustle out of the door, leaving the confused young Englishman sitting alone, staring at the two empty chairs.
David Attenborough: “It’s David, actually.”
It’s all a bit sad really. Either I’m going to have to get used to the idea that my son is going to grow up thinking of the natural world as a B-Grade slasher movie, or he’s going to have to learn it all from books.
What I do know is that next time we go down to the bush, I’m strapping him to the car seat with a bungy cord, just in case he tries to hurl himself at a warthog with a grapefruit spoon. For science.