Photo: Taken by me, earlier this year at Crickley Hill.
Ariel and I like nature documentaries. They amuse, educate, and entertain us. But not all nature documentaries were created equal, and I have a thing or two to say about the National Geographic.
I have already mentioned the script of March of the Penguins, for which NG were as I understand it entirely or almost entirely responsible. And now, I can remain silent no longer, on the subject of zebras and kangaroos.
“Patterns in the grass” is about the annual migration of zebra in Botswana. Every year they travel south to drop some foals, mate, get eaten by lions, splash about in some puddles, get eaten by hyenas, and then trundle back north to their winter grazing.
Possibly the most annoying part of the film comes during the courtship by a young “bachelor” zebra of his first “wife”. She is temporarily away from the watchful eye of her father and the bachelor woos her away to frolic and play. Soon, Father comes along, shoos his wayward daughter back to the family unit and does battle with the young male. Eventually, the two of them reach a truce and studboy is accepted as the daughter’s suitor. Hooray. The groom comes to claim his bride, but what is this? Ironically even now the female may not permit the bachelor to mate with her immediately! She may decide to insist that he protect her for a while and fight off a few predators before she will bear him a foal. What? He’s got her father’s blessing, he’s proved his worth to the father and after all that effort he still can’t get his legs over the daughter? She wants him to prove himself to her? How ironic. Gah.
And then there is a bit at the end where they show zebra being hunted by men for their skins. We are told that this is “both legal and inevitable” (and therefore acceptable) and that it is no better or worse than what the lions and hyenas and predators do. Except that the lions kill for food, not fur. Except that the hyenas kill from need, not pleasure. Except that the predators have no”ethical alternatives”. Except that they actually contribute to the ecology by culling the weak and old, leaving the strong to thrive and breed – whereas the men deliberately target the best, the biggest, the healthiest, the least scarred animals. Except that men with their guns have dramatically reduced the total number of zebra so that the population has plunged and does not look like recovering any time soon.
“Kangaroo comeback” is perhaps slightly less irritating, although this may be because it is a relatively new acquisition (from Aldi!) and has had fewer opportunities so far to rub me up the wrong way – we’ve only watched it twice!
Nevertheless, I did come away from the film feeling, again, that it had been somewhat male-centric. For instance, the amazing reproductive system of the kangaroo was only partly described – there was some talk about the female’s ability to keep an embryo in stasis as a key to successful breeding, and plenty of footage of maternal care. But the fact of there being two uteri? Two or three vaginas (depending on what you call the birth canal)? The male’s bifurcated penis? Not mentioned at all.
And more to the point, the scenes showing What Kangaroos Do All Day seemed slightly unreal. Apart from eating, mating and resting the only indication of What Kangaroos Do is that male kangaroos fight a lot while female kangaroos have joeys. Fair enough. Maybe that is all they do. Jeez those boys must spend a lot of time fighting, though, to keep up with the amount of time the girls spend mothering. Or perhaps the male kangaroos spend more time just lazing about? And just what is it that young females do, before they start having joeys I mean? All the young kangaroos were male. Not one was female. Seriously, the ONLY female kangaroos were mother kangaroos. Either this was very superficial, produced by someone not actually very interested in What Kangaroos Do, or it there was some spooky anthropomorphic, patriomorphic filtering going on somewhere.
And finally: kangaroo meat, the answer to our ecological prayers? I mean, could it really be that a native mammal evolved to cope with conditions in Australia and thriving in the wild might actually be a better and more sustainable source of meat than an invading army of sheep and cattle evolved to survive in altogether different conditions? Who knew?
And while we’re talking ecology – those scenes of wild animals being baffled or killed by the fences criss-crossing the bush? Those old pictures of rabbits and sheep buggering up the landscape? Those throwaway lines about the number of kangaroo species that have become endangered or extinct in the last couple of hundred years? Those shots of a lush, green, rainforesty Australia, hinting at what the white Europeans destroyed? Not enough. Not nearly enough.