Wildlife Documentaries: What Happens to the Limping Gazelle?


We live in an age where the media affects many facets of our lives. Media streams provide entertainment, advice, a means of communication, and all the while deploying sophisticated strategy to influence our every thought. In the same way that media has altered our perception of controversial issues like body image, it has also shaped our perception of the environment and the wild animals which inhabit it.

Mainstream wildlife documentary programs, such as Disneynature, have offered intimate snapshots into the lives of the animals which make up the world’s biodiversity. Nature documentaries are often utilized to increase audience awareness of the world outside of the normalized cityscape and boost conservation efforts. Disneynature films exhibit the majority of top-grossing nature documentaries to date, but new evidence suggests that this “focus on child-friendly narratives of animal families” in combination with idyllic visual landscapes, may be creating a counterintuitive public response. With any form of media, the public are limited to what the camera reveals, which may lead us to question the reality that has not been entirely captured by documentary directors and producers.

The Misrepresentation Effect

American culture is one that craves entertainment. Documentaries are sometimes enough to fill that void we feel to be engaged by new content. Viewers can admire countless moving images of beautiful animals; from fierce lions to gallivanting gazelles. But does the mirage of picturesque images make it easy, too easy, to forget that many of the species displayed on our screen face massive threats of extinction? The truth is that animals in the wild suffer and they suffer much more than is usually portrayed in a documentary narrative. Reasons for this tremendous suffering can range from habitat loss to climate change (obviously, not mutually exclusive), but so few times does the audience get an authentic glimpse of this reality.

Conservationists, however, argue that this attention to animal aesthetics has only aggravated the issue of public complacency, including issues related to climate change. According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Annual Living Planet Report, there has been “an overall decline of 60% in species population sizes between 1970 and 2014” and “rates of species extinctions are 100 to 1,000 times higher than the background rate (the extinction before human pressure became a prominent factor)” during which time Planet Earth was airing. We are arguably in the middle of a sixth mass extinction, and the increasing loss of biodiversity questions the fulfillment of conservation goals that the producers of nature documentaries claim to support. Jane Goodall, a world renowned conservationist and primatologist reasons,

“If you just see a documentary that shows beautiful, untouched forests, animals living wild, untouched lives, you tend to think, ‘well, everything is okay.’ But everything is not okay. Documentaries teach you to love, but then they need to give you a little wake-up call as to what you can do to make what you love continue.”

While the truth can be ugly, incorporating the reality of climate change in addition to  a specific call-to-action could be the key to transforming animal love into animal action.

There is an emergent field of research known as welfare biology that attempts to understand what life is truly like for animals living in the wild and how their daily challenges affect their welfare. The  goal of wildlife documentaries is to understand animals we might never see in person, but rarely is the actual life of a wild animal a series of graceful transitions. In the wild, their lives include a lot of suffering and death. A vast majority of animals die before reaching adulthood through which high reproduction rates attempt to balance out(Consider the wild hare, for example). The ones that do survive must then face impending threats of malnutrition, dehydration, injury, and disease. The ability to attain sufficient food and water is a constant battle for all species, and seasons of droughts and shortages can devastate populations.

Predation is accepted by human culture to be just part of the circle of life, but what if the prey animal survives the attack? Oftentimes, the documentary will leave the viewer with the impression that the animal survived and thrived after the hunt, but injuries sustained can be just as deadly, if not only inducing prolonged suffering. An animal, such as a gazelle, with an infected injury may die from the infection or exposure to disease in combination with a weakened immune system. If the injury does not kill them, in most cases, their life span is drastically shortened. There are many reasons to care for nonhuman animals, as they are living beings who can experience suffering just as we do. Currently, organized human intervention into the lives of animals to mitigate preventable suffering is followed by tremendous controversy, but productive conversations may begin through public education of welfare biology and expansion of the field of research.

Wildlife documentaries are not the only platform by which wild animals are exploited. Animal faces undoubtedly grab our attention, but does the commercial use of animals in marketing materials affect our perception of them? Evidence suggests that it definitely does. In one study, scientists researched public opinion of a photo of a digitally altered chimpanzee to include new characteristics, like human familiarity, and placed in different human-like settings. The results show that people are 35.5% were more likely to assume an animal was in a stable position when a human was shown nearby, and 30.3% were more likely to find the chimpanzee as an appealing pet. This may be due, in part, to the direct associations between humans and chimpanzees as being very genetically similar, assigning chimpanzees qualities of easy manageability and akin to domesticated species.

When applying this public perception to television programs and the displaying of humans in intimate contact with wild animals, it can be assumed that the same associations, unconscious or not, are likely also present. The practice of capturing wild animals for the purpose of keeping them in your house is hazardous to human and animal wellbeing. It is our ethical responsibility to recognize our role in protecting the rights and welfare of wild animals, and while the media can have unwanted effects on our mental models, its great influence over us gives us a glimpse at its potential for good. Our culture just has to be ready to make a change.

The next time you are sitting in the comfort of your living room, enthralled by the effortless gracefulness of lions hunting a gazelle, you will be aware of the whole story, both spoken and unspoken. Nature is never unscathed by human interaction, nor by animal interaction, with the environment. Wildlife documentaries and the media are assuredly not the sole cause of the environmental crisis we face and they play an indispensable role in exposing us to a certain level of wild animal reality that we would not have realized otherwise. Nonetheless, their representation of the “natural world” does have a significant effect on whether or not we feel compelled to take action on the behalf of the animals they represent.

To help you think critically about the animal media that you digest and promote these ideas to your friends and family, here are a few questions to consider when engaging with nature or wildlife documentaries:

  1. Which mental models are being promoted by a particular documentary?

  2. How do these models differ from scientific reality?

  3. How does the maintenance of these mental models affect animal lives?

Desli Norcross