Your Guide to the Reality of Animal Circus

"The academic panel concluded that there appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments" - Executive Summary of the DEFRA Circus Working Group 2007

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Wednesday, 14 December 2011

When the Camera Lies by Rouster

English: Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) cubs.Image via Wikipedia 

“Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see.” - Benjamin Franklin

On the 12th December 2011 the British media reported that a certain scene in episode 5 of David Attenborough's high profile documentary series "Frozen Planet" had been faked. The scene involved the birth of a polar bear cub, where perhaps one of the world's (or at least the UK's) most famous nature commentators told viewers the scene was happening "beneath the snow". A "making of" video on the BBC website revealed this scene had actually been filmed in a German zoo.

An unnamed spokesman for the show told "The Telegraph":

“This particular sequence would be impossible to film in the wild. The way the footage was captured is clearly explained on the programme website.”

Well, quite, and Rouster has no issue with this practice, but there are a couple of other issues at stake. The truth is that most natural history documentaries use captive and trained animals, and have done so for a very long time. In fact, the aforementioned newspaper mentions in the same report that:

"It is the second time that a Sir David Attenborough documentary has faked a polar bear birth - a 1997 series used footage shot in a Belgian zoo."

If you read some of the links at the end of this piece you will see that this isn't even the only "discovered" incident of fakery in this particular show! 

This all goes way back to earliest days of film-making. Quite simply the words of the shows spokesman could be applied to incidents throughout this genre's history. The most famous example of this relationship was with Disney's famous nature programmes, where circus man and safari park innovator Jimmy Chipperfield worked extensively with Walt Disney. Since those days the likes of the BBC and others have brought these documentaries to the small screen on a regular basis, creating a wide range of shows. We have seen the creation of the "Natural History Drama", which does away with the pretence of "filming nature" and actually recreates episodes from the past using trained animals and actors.  The National Geographic Channel is almost completely dedicated to providing natural history documentaries and similar to urbanized audiences that are becoming increasingly more distant from the "natural world". 

These programmes can be vital sources of education and unashamed entertainment. We can use them to draw people to science and as teaching aids, as well as to develop an interest in responsible conservation. They also can make good viewing and there is nothing wrong with that. Where matters go wrong is when the general public see these pieces of art as real representations of nature. At best they are impressions of what goes on in the natural world. Filming genuine fly-on-the-wall pieces doesn't tend to yield the type of results the general public has come to expect. Here and there nature photographers have captured some amazing images by leaving their cameras in secluded areas, but this is very "hit and miss" and is not going to fill up a single one hour programme very quickly. Besides to put a film crew into a natural habitat is going to alter matters for the wildlife before you even begin trying to capture action sequences. Film crews have budgets and few can afford hanging around in the wild waiting for those award winning sequences to occur.

So, certain situations are set up. Some are set up in the wild and the degree of this manipulation varies wildly. Those who lead safaris and their helpers have learnt many tricks to ensure tourists see animals and sometimes see animals do certain things in their natural environment. Few realize - sometimes not even the guide - that certain wild animals (which are living in the wild) are responding to the same stimuli as officially trained captive ones. Other situations are filmed on set, using captive animals that are trained for this purpose. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in principle, so long as the animals are treated in line with animal welfare legislation and by professional trainers. The only problem we have with this is when the documentaries are used as arguments against the more conspicuous side of animal training. Much like the anthropomorphizing of animals through different media, the "natural" entertainment media can add to the utopian myth about animals in the wild. Such a myth helps fuel the anger directed against animal exhibition businesses like circuses and zoos. The general public perceptions of animals in the wild tend to come from a superficial view presented by these documentaries or their carefully constructed safari holidays.

However, aside from all this, the "Frozen Planet" incident does provide us with an interesting comparison. At least the TV documentaries did not conceal this particular set-up. There was no whistle-blower and it's been an open secret since the earliest examples of natural history documentaries. How though are we to take the undercover footage of animal rights groups? There have been several documented cases of such groups setting up these situations across the animal industries. Footage often put forward for high profile cases nearly always contains edited footage, often linking together establishing shots of certain individuals (usually the owner of the "abused" animal) and then footage taken at another time featuring the alleged abuser. The graininess and darkness of the film, it could be argued, is just the nature of undercover filming - it's a similar argument made by cryptologists and ufologists when they submit the latest so-called evidence of Big Foot or an alien spacecraft. However, it also adds to the whole feeling of it being genuine. The general public connect amateur filming to CCTV footage of criminal activities, which they regularly see on factual television programmes . However, often the footage the general public sees is anything but raw. They are pieced together selected pieces with soundtracks run over the top. Sometimes it is emotive music. Other times - and this is the most egregious of all - it is an unrelated wildtrack. Animal Defenders International's "The Ugliest Show on Earth" documentary contained some of the worst examples of this, where scenes have clearly been dubbed over to add a greater feeling of chaos and drama.  

So, in conclusion, here is Rouster's latest submission for an example of today's double standards in the world of animal media. A big budget BBC documentary is discovered to have fabricated a "natural history" scene - something they revealed on their website - and they are met with criticism by the general media. Militant animal rights groups submit grainy edited footage to the media and they get an immediate credulous response - their footage is broadcast as news on national television and in the press without a question of its reliability.

For us at Rouster, perhaps the BBC director Mark Thompson pretty much sums up the type of reality that the general public often like to buy into and perhaps why groups like Rouster have such a hard time getting across animal rights hypocrisy and media double standards:

“Some years ago we asked the public whether they would prefer if there were 'on air' mentions – either captions or labels – and the overwhelming response was that they did not want us to do that.”

Perhaps the same could be said about animal rights undercover footage. I really hope not!

Astley's Legacy was formed to counteract the misinformation spread by the animal rights agenda but in addition to fighting the corner for circus animals I think there is also a further need to promote and celebrate the circus in general, especially in Great Britain. For more information please see our Facebook group
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