What's Real And What's Not Behind Reality TV's Nature Shows?
I have my doubts about “reality TV.” So seldom do any of my outback adventures become quite as harrowing as those carried out by survivalist stars on The Discovery Channel
It’s the same way for all of my hiking buddies who similarly are well-traveled. We must be doing something wrong, we reckon, because not once have any of us had to drink our own urine in the backcountry or slay a cobra (or rattlesnake) and eat its flesh to survive.
Nor have I ever been charged by a carnivore despite doing a lot of hiking, unarmed, in bear country.
You might have heard about the recent dust-up in Alaska over the killing of a black bear by producers of another Discovery Channel concoction, Gold Rush: Alaska.
Upon review, it appeared the bruin was killed for no good reason such as self-defense. Instead it died to feed viewers’ fantasies that Alaska is filled with all kinds of imminent mortal dangers.
Which leads to the purpose of this column.
In 2010, renowned wildlife filmmaker Chris Palmer wrote a book and planted the seeds for a revolution, the effects of which might not be obvious to all of us who are citizens of TV nation.
Mr. Palmer is no stranger to the West. The professor of environmental studies at American University in Washington D.C. (and who has a graduate degree from Harvard and moonlights as a stand-up comedian), he makes numerous trips to national parks and other public lands on account of his former main occupation.
Mr. Palmer made nature documentaries about wildlife. Over the course of many years, he not only won global cinematic acclaim and reached audiences of millions, he enlisted conservationists like Robert Redford and Paul Newman to serve as narrators.
He collaborated with Ted Turner, while working with both the National Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation, to get his films and a series by Jacques-Yves Cousteau aired.
He is a fierce proponent of environmental education and he, along with many of his prominent cinematographer friends, understand the power of raising eco-awareness.
That’s one of the reasons why the international Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in Wyoming and the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, Montana got started, he says.
But from Marlin Perkins, host of the old Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, to Bear Grylls, star of The Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild reality TV show, there’s been a hidden secret: It involves staged scenes and exploitation of captive animals to create an illusion, often duping an unsuspecting public.
Mr. Palmer’s book, Shooting In The Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies In The Animal Kingdom, is the most important ever written about nature documentaries.
While the fascinating tome is fueling a campaign to mandate full disclosure in how films are made, there have been guilty parties striking back in anger now that Mr. Palmer has blown their cover.
When I spoke with Mr. Palmer not long ago for an interview with Wildlife Art Journal, he explained, “A few people are angry at me for giving away the trade secrets. One critic who makes part of his living by renting out wild animals to filmmakers, called me a parasitic bottom feeder.”
He added: “But most people are delighted by the book and are relieved that at last someone who knows what they’re talking about is bringing these topics out for airing.”
Filmmakers, Mr. Palmer says sympathetically, are under enormous pressure to get “the money shots” that propel projects forward, and he admits to having rented game farm animals to help convey animal behavior that couldn’t be captured easily in the wild.
“I began to think about the foundational ethical issue, ‘Do the ends justify the means?'” he says. “For the first 10 to 15 years of my life as a film producer, the answer was 'yes.' After that, I began to question whether harassing an animal to get a shot was justified by the conservation benefits of the film being made.”
Mr. Palmer is joined today by famed Jackson Hole wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen and Cristina Mittermeier, leader of the International League of Conservation Photographers, in bringing scrutiny to game farms.
While it serves no purpose to cast aspersions at filmmakers in hindsight, Mr. Palmer offers plenty of contemporary examples likely to resonate with the B.S. meters of backcountry enthusiasts, including die-hard outdoorspeople here who recreate in national parks.
One of Mr. Palmer’s targets is the late Timothy Treadwell, whom he said engaged in idiotic behavior with brown bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska and paid the price by losing his life.
Another is Mr. Grylls, the former British special forces chap who teaches viewers survival skills on Man vs. Wild and, allegedly, drinks his own urine and catches, and eats, deadly snakes.
Mr. Palmer looks upon Mr. Grylls, who smudges his face and starched laundered cloths with mud, with incredulity—particularly after it was revealed that Mr. Grylls and crew, off camera, had stayed in hotels though they claimed to be operating off the grid of civilization.
“He [Grylls] provides a good example of how not to behave in the wild,” Mr. Palmer says. “He wantonly kills animals to push up the ratings, and he takes unnecessary risks. I wonder how many people have been hurt by following his example?”
If the noble objective is to educate, inspire and entertain the masses about wildlife and its struggles to survive in the modern world, then truth, Mr. Palmer says, should not be a casualty, nor, for that matter, ethics and morals.
“Lots of great conscientious people work in this industry,” he says. “We can do better. I know we can.”