Wildlife Film Ethics
As science and wildlife documentary filmmakers, we have a great deal of public responsibility. Much of what the public learns about the natural world comes from the films we make. If we explain the aerial acrobatics of the great white shark, the mating behavior of paradise birds, or the burrowing habits of the pygmy armadillo, people should trust that what we’re telling them is true.
Specifically, we are trusted to share science and natural history stories as accurately as possible and to interact responsibly with animals while we’re in the field.
Telling a Truthful Story
Science and wildlife filmmaking is about telling stories, but there is a delicate line between fact and fiction. Most audiences know they can’t believe everything they see in the movies or in fictional television programming, but we don’t want to get to the point where they are doubtful of natural history programming, too.
A few years back, the filmmakers of a popular show on a respected science documentary channel got into trouble. The show claimed to be a two-man crew following the host as he was trying to rescue himself in the wild. It proved to be a false statement. People were outraged when they found out that the crew actually spent a few weeks shooting the purported three-day survival trip and that the two-person camera team actually consisted of closer to a dozen people, all staying in nice hotels at the end of the day. After this was leaked to the public though, the show remained on the air with only a small disclaimer at the beginning of the show claiming that not everything was real.
A colleague of mine accompanied this crew to the tropics as their survival expert. They wanted to tell the story of how to avoid a piranha attack. He told us of one particular shoot where they wanted to show a piranha hunt. He fished a bunch of piranha from the river, put them into a small backwater pool, and fashioned a bow for the host to use. Unfortunately the host couldn’t shoot the arrows well enough to catch a piranha, so our expert shot the piranha then threw the host the bow as the camera panned up. Is this kind of truth-bending okay? Are they breaking any fundamental ethical rules in documentary filmmaking?
Another recent ground-breaking show took the technology of Jurassic Park and put a natural history story to dinosaurs. Unlike other shows that theorized how dinosaurs might have behaved in the wild, this show used high-tech computers to render the life of dinosaurs from birth to death, often making up facts in order to tell the story.
A third wildlife documentary from the 1950s about the Arctic contains a famous scene of the mass suicide of lemmings. The lemming populations increase dramatically, only to run out of food and force them to commit suicide into the ocean; we saw it for the first time on the film. The idea was later proved to be fake and there were accusations of animal cruelty.
We give these three examples so you can start thinking about the issues. Where is the line?
Treating the Animals Right
Telling animal stories in nature is innately difficult. Consider shooting a film on wolves, for example. Most people will never see a wolf in the wild. Now imagine trying to tell the story with a 70-pound IMAX camera loudly whirring and scaring away the subject. Filmmakers may get past these problems by using tame wolves. If an expensive film shoot demands it, why not get trained animals to perform for the camera?
It might depend on the narration of the film. If the film claims the wolves are wild, then this is untruthful storytelling. However, the narration could be written to tell the natural history of the wolf and avoid mentioning whether these particular wolves on camera are wild. It allows audiences to see how wolves behave and earn an appreciation for their beauty without endangering them. We’d argue that this protects wild wolves.
Under no circumstances should filmmakers put animals in physical danger simply for a shot. We’ve heard horror stories where a group of filmmakers pulled an exhausted wildebeest out of a mud pit in order to film the kill by waiting lions, or a film about Hawaii where a pig was tied down to be included in a shot panning through the forest. Untamed Science takes the stance that filmmakers must avoid all acts of animal cruelty when making wildlife documentaries.
Ethical Code of Conduct
Fortunately, there are certain codes that organizations like the BBC and Filmmakers for Conservation have instated for wildlife filmmakers. We support and follow these guidelines.
- Always place the welfare of the subject above all else.
- Ensure that your subjects are not caused any physical harm, anxiety, consequential predation or lessened reproductive success by your activities.
- Don’t do anything that will permanently alter the natural behavior of your subject. Be aware that habituation, baiting, and feeding may place your subjects at risk and may be lethal.
- It is unacceptable to restrict or restrain an animal by any means to attract a predator.
- Subjects should never be drugged or restrained in order to alter their behavior for the sole purpose of filming.
- Be aware of and follow all local and national laws regarding wildlife where you are filming.
- Be courteous to your contributors (give appropriate credit where it is due). Whenever possible give copies of the finished program, a copy of a long edit of an appropriate scene, and/or publicity photographs to the people who helped you.
- Images or script that give an audience abnormal, false or misleading information about a subject or its behavior should be avoided.
- Always research your subject prior to filming.
Guidelines for Working in the Field
- Restore all sites to their original state before you leave (for example: tie back rather than cut vegetation).
- Be aware and take precautions, as some species will permanently quit a site just because of your odor.
- Keep film, video equipment, and crew members at a distance sufficient to avoid site or subject disturbance.
- Night shooting with artificial lights can require precautions to avoid making the subject vulnerable to predation.
- Be prepared to meet unexpected conditions without damaging the environment or subject. Be especially prepared and deal with any people attracted by your activities as they could put the subject at risk.
- Be aware that filming a den or nest site could attract predators.
- The use of tame or captive animals should be acknowledged. If so, ensure the subject receives proper care; the subject’s trainer or custodian should always be present during filming.
A good bottom line to consider is, if it feels wrong or questionable then it probably is.