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This elephant remembers

Long-term studies and long-ago revelations

Apr 25, 2017

Last week was a funny old week for podcast-prompted nostalgia. First, there was an episode of BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking podcast: Taking the Long View with the Animal Kingdom. Two very old friends, Phyllis Lee and Tim Birkhead, talked entertainingly and at length about what they've learned from long-term studies of elephants and guillemots respectively. Not a lot of this was all that new to me, and Radio 3 is not exactly the most popular of channels, but it was very good that long-term studies were being given the public airing they deserve and, perhaps even rarer, that scientists were given the time to express themselves.

Listening to Phyllis and Tim took me back to my own days studying animal behaviour. Although my own studies were lab-bound and anything but long-term, my subjects being destined for a life free of my intervention after a week or so, ten days at most, I hung around with the rugged field biologists when they came back to base and lived their lives of adventure and derring do vicariously. And, of course, visiting them on holiday in the field was an adventure most tourists could only dream of.

I do sometimes wonder how life would have turned out for me if I had pursued some of my research topics with a little bit more commitment. Probably very differently, but that's as far as I can go. Not better, not worse; just different. And that's OK.

Odd, then, that when I searched for Taking the Long View with the Animal Kingdom to find the Radio 3 page, the result below the one I was looking for was How long does it take to get from Animal Kingdom Park to Boma's African Buffet? Odd because the other podcast that had me strolling down memory lane was 99pi's Sounds Natural, which pulled back the curtain on wildlife filmmakers and their funny little ways. Like, gasp, shooting close-ups in captivity and then editing them seamlessly into wild footage without telling anyone. Or -- and this is so routine as to be unremarkable -- adding almost all the sounds you hear post production.

Back when I had stopped doing research into animal behaviour, I worked with some of those same film makers on several projects, one of which had taken me behind the scenes at Disney's Animal Kingdom (though I don't remember Boma's African Buffet existing back then). I learned so much, and I can still remember two real revelations.

The first was about visual editing, and how a skilled editor creates the final scene. The sequence he put together for the segment about Tropic World in Chicago was my first experience of seeing that magic up close, and has stayed with me even though I had, until 5 minutes ago, forgotten his name.1

The second was the peculiar world in which sound recordists live. They're always a fraction behind the action, because they are monitoring properly on headphones; properly being from a separate playback head so they know they've actually recorded what they are hearing.2 And they have a tendency to wander off and record who knows what "just in case," adding to the vast library of sounds that, as 99pi's episode made clear, is absolutely vital to truthful wildlife films.

And that was the bigger point about both of those podcasts. Phyllis Lee spoke for all the researchers who study behaviour when she said that most of the day was not all that exciting. "Feed. Feed. Feed." Not that you would ever know that from watching wildlife films about elephants or anything else.

I remember being in Amboseli, where she worked, with a bunch of ill-assorted tourists, one of whom idiotically threw an empty Kodak film carton at a lion in a vain attempt to get it to do something. It didn't, which was just as well because the shot would have been ruined by that bright yellow box on the ground.

So there's the whole edited highlights aspect to wildlife films, which can be a disappointment. The joy of listening to Phyllis Lee and Tim Birkhead talk about long-term studies is how much more of the story is revealed when you have data on generation after generation; it is that longer, complex, more nuanced narrative that gives the modern wildlife film-maker so much more material to work with, the better to inform the rest of us, no matter what it takes. As 99pi observed:

Filmmaking can be a powerful instrument for showing the natural world and the challenges it faces. But sometimes to tell a compelling story, you will need a bit of fakery.

I find something very disturbing about the ersatz experience of Animal Kingdom Park and Boma's African Buffet, and tried to show as much in my films. We were allowed to film before opening time, and as we cruised around on the stream that encircled the exhibits, I was delighted to see a technician up a ladder leaned against an audio-animatronic giraffe's neck, gently touching up the paint job around its eye. Nobody who saw the film seemed to think that in the least bit odd, but then, they probably don't find Animal Park as odd as I do.

In the end, wildlife films and zoos are trying to show people things that they might not otherwise experience, unless they can spend a lifetime in the field. To do that, they have to fake it to some extent, and I applaud when they do it well. But there's a much bigger concern. Back to 99pi:

Chris Palmer, the filmmaker who once used rented wolves to show a den scene, believes the movie magic must be employed to tell the truth. One form of deception that he’s concerned about is the tendency to portray the natural world as if it doesn’t have problems. Too many nature documentaries show a world divorced from human civilization, he believes. There are seldom shots of the nearby city, or the coal mine encroaching on habitat. To leave out any mention of these environmental challenges, says Palmer, is misleading.

That's where wildlife film-making and I parted company. OK, I managed a couple of subversive sequences undermining "authentic" wildlife experiences, but every time I suggested programme ideas that would show the natural world in the context of human civilization, I was told in no uncertain terms that viewers don't want to see that sort of thing. So I gave up. Admittedly this was a long time ago, and I haven't seen many natural history films lately, not even the mega-blockbusters. But I fear that remains the prevalent attitude.

Circling back, one of the more interesting things that the Free Thinking episode divulged was that long-term studies, which recognise animals as individuals, started in Japan. Someone, probably the presenter Rana Mitter, mentioned one of the great East-West divides, that in the East, people are part of nature, while in the West people are apart from, and observers of, nature. Wildlife documentaries mostly continue that tradition.


  1. Dave Barrett -- discovered only through the BBC's little known Genome project

  2. I don't know whether any modern digital recorders have a way of letting you know that while you may be hearing stuff through your headphones, you aren't actually recording it, a lack that has caught me more than a few times, I'm ashamed to admit. 

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