The Inner Lives of Animals

Understanding animal behavior.

Man vs. Wild, Bear Grylls, and the Violent Nature Myth

let's put down the rock and leave the rattlesnake alone

A few months ago, surfing the television, I happened upon a scene in which a fit-looking young man forcibly removed a rattlesnake from beneath a shrub and smashed its head in with a rock. As he did so, he warned of the danger posed by these reptiles. How ironic.

I soon learned that the television presenter was Bear Grylls, star of Discovery Channel's Man vs. Wild series (Born Survivor in the UK). I wrote to the show's producers, expressing my dismay that they were depicting brutal violence against animals and reinforcing old myths about perilous nature. I received a form letter reply explaining that "Man vs. Wild provides important information that can be used in life-threatening situations-if faced with danger, starvation and dehydration," and that "maintaining the integrity of our network is our primary goal."

I thanked them and said:

If Discovery's producers think there is any redeeming value in this guy crushing innocent snakes or (tell me it isn't true, but I heard it word of mouth) biting the heads off live fishes, then your values are twisted. What gets my goat is that Discovery is, I suspect, appealing to a certain demographic (young men in need of a few ethics lessons) and is
willing to sell them anything it can get away with legally to make a profit. Yes, that's how cynically I view this program. I invite you to try to convince me it isn't so, but I really don't think you have a case.

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End of correspondence.

Man vs. Wild is just one of the latest in a history of wildlife film-making that seeks to sell by glorifying nature's more violent and dramatic moments. A new book, Shooting in the Wild, by an insider-veteran wildlife film-maker Chris Palmer-points out the relative rarity of predator-prey interactions in the wild and tells readers that "if you see a bear feeding on a deer carcass in a film, it is almost certainly a tame bear searching for hidden jellybeans in the entrails of a deer's stomach." Palmer suspects that a giant lizard that Grylls hauls from a stream before smashing it against a tree was a tame creature put there by the film crew. At the bottom of the Discovery Channel website on Man vs. Wild, one finds this: On some occasions, situations are presented to Bear so he can demonstrate survival techniques.

Having spent a few thousand hours hiking and exploring natural areas on six continents, I know how lucky one has to be to find a charismatic wild creature, let alone a scene of strife. In the past month I had the stunning good fortune to encounter not one but two copperhead snakes while biking a trail along the Potomac River; it was almost enough for me to take up Religion. Unlike Grylls, I took photos, not life.

In his classic book Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare, ecologist Paul Colinvaux explains that nature doesn't favor predatory lifestyles-at least not in terrestrial habitats. Meat-eating is not an easy way to make a living. Lots of energy is lost at each step of a food-chain, which is why wildebeest are so much more numerous than lions, and why you'll see a thousand geese for every eagle. Also, prey animals do not make themselves easy to catch or subdue, which is why only a fraction of hunts are successful.

Why do we believe that wild nature is so cruel, harsh and dangerous? Why is nature, when viewed through our cultured lens, seen as red in tooth and claw, a survival of the fittest? If it's such a dog-eat-dog world out there, then why, asks biologist Marc Bekoff, don't we see dogs eating other dogs?

I believe a major reason why we tout cruel nature is that it absolves us of guilt for being cruel ourselves; If nature is cruel and we are just another part of nature, then surely it is natural and defensible to be cruel, so the thinking goes. But how many species do you know that cage others and kill them before they grow to be adults, as we do to most of the animals destined for our dinner plates. What other animal conducts harmful experiments on other creatures before killing them? Only us. Quite aside from the shallowness of viewing nature as cruel (she can be, but she is routinely not so, and wild animals don't spend their days cowering in fear), even if she were it wouldn't give us license to follow suit. If we think might-makes-right is a fair ethic, then we can have no legitimate objection to a "superior" race of aliens arriving on earth to torture and kill us. The irony is that if the aliens really were superior, they would probably be peaceable and friendly. It's time to put down the rock and let the snake alone.

 

Jonathan Balcombe, Ph.D., has written scientific papers and lay articles on animal behavior, humane education, and animal research.

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