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Behind The Scenes: Ethics Of Wolf Wars And Turtle Travels

Once upon a time, documentary film maker Chris Palmer rented a bunch of wolves from a game farm to aid the making of an IMAX film called Wolves. That decision, Palmer told NPR back in August, was better for the species than the intrusive process of habituating wild wolves would have been; the use of non-wild wolves was disclosed in the movie's credits.

Still, "it was kind of surreptitious and clandestine," he admitted, and a lack of transparency regarding his viewing audience that has bothered him ever since.

Now Palmer — now the distinguished film producer in residence and director of American University School of Communication's Center for Environmental Filmmaking — is putting the finishing touches on his book Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker, to be published next year. In it, he exposes the extent of ethical violations committed in the industry devoted to making wildlife films and TV programs, ranging from documentaries to reality shows. Often these transgressions are far more serious than an under-disclosed renting of wolves.

When I interviewed Palmer by email last week, he offered an example centered, again, on wolves. It struck a chord with me because two years ago, I wrote here at 13.7 about Jodi Picoult's novel Lone Wolf, which characterized wolves in ways considered by some scientists to be irresponsible — even in a work of fiction. Now, though, we're not talking about creative writing but about real-life, filmed actions that harm wolves directly, while also perpetrating myths about their behavior.

The program in question is Yukon Men, now in its third season on the Discovery Channel. Palmer described the show this way:

"A reality series about the citizens of the small town of Tanana in central Alaska, it portrays wolves as highly dangerous predators that besiege the town and threaten the safety of all the residents. One of the show's characters, Charlie, says, 'Wolves are mean, ferocious animals... They're the worst kind.' A menacing voiceover intones, 'There have been twenty fatal wolf attacks in the last ten years.' The camera cuts to Charlie, brutally killing a wolf with a semi-automatic assault rifle.

In Yukon Men, all predators, including wolves, wolverines, bears, and lynx, are depicted as vicious, nasty, and fully deserving of excruciatingly painful deaths via steel leg-hold traps and other means. But zoologist Adam Welz notes in his Guardian blog NatureUp that much of Yukon Men is grossly misleading. He could find no evidence to support the claim that there have been twenty fatal wolf attacks in Alaska in the last ten years. He is also baffled why Discovery would produce and broadcast a 'factual' show which portrays wolves as 'man-eating monsters straight out of Victorian fairytales, a serious threat to life and limb,' when the evidence shows that wolves rarely attack people."

Wolves have enough problems in this country, based on misunderstandings about their nature, even without this misleading and dangerous perspective. Overall, it may be predator species that suffer the most in this regard. Another offending show, Rattlesnake Republic on Animal Planet, follows teams of rattlesnake hunters in Texas. About this program, Palmer had this to say:

"Animal Planet describes the rattlesnake as 'the continent's most dangerous predator,' even though rattlesnakes rarely bite unless provoked or threatened. The majority of rattlesnake bites are the result of people intentionally interacting with the snakes. In the process of making the show, the producers deliberately antagonize and goad these creatures in an effort to construct a compelling storyline and get higher ratings. Again, we see animal cruelty, slaughter, and stigmatization promoted as entertainment."

Ethics may be breached even when animals are not directly harmed: The 2009 film Turtle: The Incredible Journey is a case in point. It's billed as a documentary and, naturally enough, people assume they are watching footage from the wild. Instead, Palmer says:

"...the film is full of impossible-to-detect and unannounced computer-generated imagery and special effects. It tells the amazing story of a little loggerhead turtle that follows in the path of her ancestors on one of the most extraordinary journeys in the natural world. Born on a beach in Florida, she rides the Gulf Stream all the way to the frozen north and ultimately swims around the entire North Atlantic to Africa and back to the beach where she was born. Dangers and threats lurk everywhere. But viewers have no way of knowing what is real and what is digitally manipulated."

The manipulation in Turtle, digital and otherwise, was extensive, The New York Times has reported: Rescue turtles were used instead of wild turtles in some scenes, while 3D digital techniques were deployed in others, as were animated sharks.

And here we loop back to where we started with Palmer's use of the rented wolves in his own film. Palmer distinguishes between use of animation in documentaries (which may be an ethical act) and deceptive use of such animation (not an ethical act):

"Using animation reduces handling of the actual turtles, which benefits the turtles themselves. Informed audiences might even support extensive animation and computer manipulation, knowing these tricks of the trade protect the endangered animals whose stories they portray. But no one likes being duped."

On this point, even the venerated program Frozen Planeton BBC/Discovery Channel screwed up. In one segment, polar bear clubs were filmed in a Dutch zoo, even while viewers were led to think the bears' behavior was unfolding in the Arctic. The BBC website did include a disclaimer about filming in a zoo, but it wasn't exactly easy to find. Only when the media picked up on the story did a prominent disclaimer get added to the program for its U.S. airing. Palmer says:

"It was the right choice to film the polar bear cubs in a zoo. Harassing wild bears to capture den footage would be irresponsible — but unfortunately so is deceiving viewers, because it breeds mistrust. The BBC could have even used the footage as a conservation teaching moment, explaining why it's unethical to film bear cubs in the wild. Such an attempt might lead the mother polar bear to kill her cubs."

We who enjoy wildlife-oriented entertainment can insist on full disclosure of filming conditions and, even more importantly, on fair treatment of the animals. We can turn off shows that harm animals and support those based on science and principles of animal welfare. I'm a fan of PBS's Nature, for instance, which offers a marvelous online archive of its hour-long programs.

Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape.

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.