The danger of sterilising nature
To me personally, the unfathomable complexity of the natural world is one of its irresistible draws: when engaging with it I must therefore accept that there is more to it than I will ever personally understand or grasp fully, and I am OK with that. I know it is a cliche, but it is nevertheless true, that while I was studying conservation and ecology at University, the thing I learned better than anything else was how much I still have to learn, or to put it another way, how much I don’t yet know.
Because we can not fully comprehend the natural world, it is fruitless trying to compare the lives of wild species with our own. Attempts to anthropomorphise nature are relatively common, particularly in non-wildlife specific media; almost as common are reminders from the scientific community of the inefficacy or irrelevance of this practice. Applying tags such as ‘cruel’, ‘harsh’, ‘vicious’, ‘horrific’ or ‘evil’ to individual animals or interactions between species is both missing the point and pointless.
These captions, based on human out-looks and emotions, simply do not translate across to animal behaviour, not even to the predators at which these comments are almost always levelled. No sparrowhawk perches up after it has plucked a Blue tit from a garden feeder and thinks, “Oh dear, I was particularly vicious that time… perhaps I have been a bit cruel… maybe such violence wasn’t warranted after all. Terribly sorry old chap.”
Ecologically there is no difference between a predator killing and eating its prey and a herbivore grazing: in simple terms they are both using the evolutionary advantage gained through distinct and specific physiological characteristics to utilise a food resource in order to accrue energy, allowing them to survive and ultimately reproduce; both carnivore and herbivore impact other species or organisms.
Unlike in human society, no animal will change its behaviour because of popular culture or political correctness, nor will it feel guilty or apologise in the face of public outcry if it doesn’t conform to expectations. I think this desire to compare, and the knock on effects, have associated, albeit subtle, dangers.
A few recent articles and comments have sparked this train of thought. The most recent was this news article about an example of cannibalism in Australian salt water crocodiles. The ‘attack’, labelled as ‘horrific’ by the headline entailed an act of within species predation; it was suggested that the smaller crocodile, the ‘victim’, may even have been dead already in which case it is just scavenging behaviour. In any event, why does this story have to be led with ‘horrifying’? Is it a gut reaction to the innate power and ferocity of one of the world’s largest living predators? Perhaps it is specific to this isolated incident because of the relationship between predator and prey? Or is it just because this particular occurrence of such behaviour happened to have a human spectator?
Surely ‘fascinating’ would be a better title, or ‘rarely seen glimpse into crocodile feeding behaviour’. I am fully supportive of efforts to educate people to the potential dangers of large and dangerous animals, creating a relationship of healthy and even cautious respect has and will continue to save lives, but there is a difference between understanding and caution and fear and vilification. This crocodile was just feeding itself, what is so ‘horrific’ about that?
The other case was a Youtube video from the channel ‘Simon King Wildlife’. It depicted a case of sparrowhawk predation in an urban garden and bore the (I thought) descriptive and unequivocal title – ‘Sparrowhawk Attacks a Pigeon – Eats it Alive (High Quality)’. I don’t know about you, but I was under no illusions of what I was going to see when I clicked to watch this video, a few months ago now. Despite this there were some who were less than satisfied. I have reproduced some of the comments below:
“This video should have had some sort of viewer warning, althou it’s nature it’s still pretty sad’
“Interesting footage but needs a stronger warning. Nature at its most vicious but necessary! Sad end to a life. Great footage though”
“some things are better left described in words, not to be graphically depicted. I know it is mother nature….but is it so important to see a creature being cruelly killed? Mankind has nothing to do with it,…so why the need to show it?”
(NB – I have reproduced the above comments, which were made publicly, in full so as not to take the original comment out of context – I have chosen not to include the derogatory responses to some of these comments. I have not included names because I do not intend this as a personal disagreement, simply as an indication of a common mindset in society. Sections of particular relevance have been emboldened for emphasis)
I understand that to many an animal death can be distressing to watch, but when you have been told clearly what to expect, why do you need a stronger warning? A warning implies something is potentially harmful, detrimental or damaging. Worse still, why censor it entirely to prevent anyone from watching it? Isn’t observation an intrinsic element of the scientific process by which we learn about the natural world? By this mentality will nature documentaries start requiring age certification, like the movies, for violence or sexuality? Depictions of the breeding season would never be aired inside the watershed again – Autumnwatch would be out of business, for a start, without the deer rut!
Research into the negative impacts of explicit and extreme depictions of human violence and sexuality regularly concludes that too much exposure to this type of material can lead to behavioural and relationship issues, including criminally violent or sexually abusive behaviours – without question something to be curtailed at all costs. I have yet to hear that nature documentaries have the same effect, regardless of how ‘violent’ they are. And yet we see films and games getting more and more violent, more and more sexually explicit with seemingly less and less restrictions, and nature being asked to ‘tone it down a bit’. I am the only one to whom this seems a little backward?
It would appear I am not entirely alone – the recent popularity of BBC documentary, The Hunt, (I’m a massive fan by the way and have loved watching it) has shown that real animal behaviour, even the gory bits is still acceptable… to a degree. This documentary, which arguably represents the endeavours of ‘hunting’ animals more realistically than any other portrayal to date, still edits footage to ‘tastefully’ gloss over the worst of, for want of a better word, ‘the bloody bits’. Don’t get me wrong, it contains enough to tell the story in full, but the audience is still, to a small degree, sheltered, protected, from the full picture. Do I think this is a bad thing, or that they should have acted differently in the editing suite? Not entirely no – don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t choose to sit and watch 50 minutes of zoomed in close disembowelment, or macro scale dissection for the fun of it either. Doubtless more people have watched or continued watching the series as a result. I just feel in some small way that this approach, and this is by means a criticism specific to this series by the way, capitulates to those who wish to sanitise or censor the natural world to a degree with which they feel comfortable. And herein lies the danger, or at least the root cause of potentially dangers, and my point for this article.
When we get accustomed with the idea of depictions of nature, which we deem to be harsh or horrific being edited, or alternatively not depicted at all, to make us comfortable we get a rose tinted view of the natural world which doesn’t accurately reflect the conditions in the field. In this quest for comfortable viewers or readers where is the line drawn, where is a stand made, where the whole story, the truth, is more important that the audiences emotionally tranquillity. If it’s OK to censor a bit of blood in a documentary, then where do we learn about the horrors of illegal poaching and its impact on critically endangered species? If our reaction to a pigeon being eaten by a sparrowhawk, a daily occurrence no doubt off camera, is to turn the video off or grumble a bit about not being warned in advance, what will our reaction be when we are shown images of genuine brutality such as a half alive rhino with its horn sawn off or real unnecessary cruelty like tens of thousands of birds being shot in Malta in total disregard for international protection, just so ‘hunters’ can watch them fall?
It will make us uncomfortable, so we will turn it off, or stop reading, or switch back to the ‘nice channel’ where the garden is full of blue tits year after year and never changes? (This subject has been discussed recently by well known industry figure heads)? Occasional stern words can only do so much when they are consistently undermined by images of everything being swell. So perhaps we should ask ourselves if a comfortable audience is necessarily the right result for a documentary of this genre. Wonder, yes; Fascination, I hope so; Passion, certainly; Disgust, perhaps; Concern, probably; Anger; possibly; Inspiration; definitely; Motivation, crucially!
Comfort doesn’t inspire or motivate to action – comfort lulls us into a false sense of security and will have us sitting on our backsides watching ‘Eastenders’ or ‘The Kardashians’ (if there was ever a deserving candidate for censorship, look no further!) while all around the globe the real world picture of biodiversity is bleak. I have heard it said that ‘the duty of a speaker (or for these purposes media or writer or producer etc) is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. Perhaps with nature writing, filming and reporting this could be taken to heart.
I think this desire for a comfortable yet unrealistic worldview stems, deep down at least, to a sense of shame. We as a society, at least western society, haven’t got over the fact that humans won the evolutionary race and then used that advantage to rape the natural world. We feel guilty about it. The tags we apply now to nature to justify our detachment are labels which in reality can only be applied to humans. ‘Horrific’ and completely unnecessary exploitation of other species and natural resources; ‘Brutal’ treatment of other people – ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ (R. Burns) – and animals. And on and on.
If this is true, and I may be dead wrong, then the time to stop hiding behind this sense of shame is now. The ecological sins of our parents aren’t on our heads, unless by our inaction we perpetuate them. Instead we should step up to the mark, volunteer for accountability, because perhaps then we will shoulder responsibility and begin to act effectively. In no way do I intend to belittle or ignore the actions and efforts of thousands of conservationists, ecologists, biologists and environmentalists over the last few decades the world around – but I think they would all agree, there aren’t enough of them.
The danger in sterilising our perception of the natural world is not that we become desensitised to the harsh realities of a wild and unforgiving ecosystem, but that the vulnerabilities which are threatening to irreparably alter the biological world as we know it are hidden and disguised to allow a largely ignorant public to remain comfortable while biodiversity collapses around their ears.
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