- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2007

There are jealousy, pride, envy, anger, avarice, gluttony, lust, sloth, greed and a host of other deadly sins. Melodrama and angst are out of control, and there are toileting issues, too.

What? What? Is it Capitol Hill at midnight or the Democratic National Convention we’re talking about here? Is Lindsay Lohan involved? No, this is all about lions behaving badly. And filmmakers behaving even worse. We’re referring to wildlife documentaries, which have shed their soft, fuzzy coats and become, well, hard-core wildlife porn.

Marlin Perkins would have a cow. Maybe even a dugong.

The venerable zoologist and host of the old “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” once offered a thoughtful foray into the wilderness wonders of mother bears and mountain sheep. Chipmunks would provide comic relief. In full narration mode, Mr. Perkins gave a scientist’s take on cubs and forest trails in tones befitting a coronation — or a science lecture at Dumbarton Oaks, anyway.

Ah, but the critters were noble beasts back then, and aside from an occasional encounter with a truculent anaconda or alligator, the 1960s-era program showcased viable, noninvasive insight into wildlife and habitat. A sense of mystery and even majesty was evident.

Now? The animals in today’s fauna fare are hoodlums.

They murder one another with much guttural screaming and Technicolor bloodletting while cameras roll. Everything is filmed in slow motion or intensely scripted sequences borrowed from “Friday the 13th.” There is always — always — a lion, leopard or cheetah that chases down some hapless hoofed thing. The big cat’s heavy tail invariably describes a great arc, going around in orbit while long-distance microphones pick up every last gurgle.

The feline springs, the zebra/gazelle/wildebeest goes down on the veldt, eyes popping and dark lips skinned back to reveal a ridge of stark white teeth as the animal takes a last breath.

The human filmmakers behind it all should know better. They have turned innocent educational fare into voyeurism, using the rationale that it’s reality: Zebras get eviscerated; small intestines fly about; the cubs have their portion, and they fight; vultures hover. Mournful narration — as dire as that heard on the PBS series “Frontline” — is a mainstay.

Yes, well. Maybe that’s life in the wild, but maybe it’s dramatically edited footage crafted by directors who don’t have to pay their talent — unless they throw it a big steak. High-tech digital cameras offer hair-raising detail. And why must we — the dainty human viewers — be privy to close-up shots of a) lions urinating, b) lions mating, c) seals, giraffes and deer giving birth?

Attention Marlin, oh Marlin

This is not the “When Animals Attack” stuff, which does not presume to be much more than lucky camerawork and shameless chutzpah. The National Geographic Channel has joined in the kill with new programming such as “Planet Carnivore,” which holds promise for those craving their Caligula fix for the day.

“Rules will be broken. Threatened iconic predators will fight for their lives. Even the invincible are vulnerable,” the channel advises.

Employing dramatic license, producers have given the toothy cast — sharks, bears, et al. — exotic names like Tuyuq and Haii. Hey, what’s wrong with Ralph, or even no name? Some reviews of this programming warn parents about violent content; the channel also features alarming advice about what to do if you’re, say, attacked by a 20-foot shark.

There are political underpinnings as well. While dining on seals, a polar bear named Binne “becomes victim to global warming and pollutants,” and brown bear populations have dwindled because “humans wiped them out.” And while studious conservation always has been associated with wildlife filmmaking in a Teddy Rooseveltian kind of way, some contemporary content is heavily laced with Al Gorean eco-alarmism, with mankind and his sport utility vehicles cast in the role of villain.

Yet at the bottom of it all is a turf battle — not between animals, but between the filmmakers, who seek ratings and audiences. Like anything else, titillation, even among dugongs, is a shoo-in. There is some real money to be had. Consider that the 2005 hit “March of the Penguins” was shot for $8 million but earned $123 million worldwide. The producers are suing the director over a profits dispute.

And yes, an International Wildlife Film Festival and an International Association of Wildlife Filmmakers both exist, not to mention the Museum Film Network, an international consortium of 15 science museums “formed to meet a demand” for quality large-format films. Locales around the planet hope to attract film crews eager to record more evidence of chimp violence or seal tragedy as treetops, nests, lagoons and savannahs become film sets.

The wildlife, in the meantime, may be wondering where their union cards are.

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and hapless hoofed things for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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