I AM LION: Tauana Films Defends Depiction of Hand-Reared Lioness in a Film Exploring Sentience in Non-Human Animals

Submitted in response to comments posted by Ms Sia Steffen, of Captive Wildlife Watchdog.

Ms Steffen has not seen I Am Lion. She has made no attempt whatsoever to contact Tauana Films or any of the production crew to verify her facts before or after publishing her article. 

Instead, she chooses to selectively nit-pick her way through the Tauana Films website and Facebook pages for ammunition to feed her own bias. In the process she chooses to overlook Tauana Films’ Production Record, which attests to 40 years of independent filmmaking and a lifetime of working with and alongside game rangers, scientists and conservationists to try and make ordinary people aware of the huge challenges both wildlife and wildlife professionals on the ground face, both inside and outside of protected areas. 

It is tempting to use Ms Steffens’ own yardstick to judge her and her group’s body of work; to analyse the motivation behind the writing of the article; the social media strategies; the social and professional ambition; the slick and calculated assertion that (of course) everyone in her organization believes all animals to be sentient individuals.   

What would be the point? Mud-slinging is a very satisfying pastime. It feels great to identify oneself as the ‘goodie’, and to go out and nail all the ‘baddies’ out there. It is also completely counter-productive. 

Down here on the ground in the real world, life is never quite so black and white. Telling a local cattle farmer that he is a criminal and a lesser human being for having shot or poisoned or captured lions after they killed his last milk cow or his child might make an activist feel great about him or herself, but it doesn’t make the farmer hate lions any less. 

In our view ignoring or refusing to record the lives of captive lions is tantamount to saying, ‘if I don’t acknowledge your existence you do not exist.’ We do not sanction that kind of reasoning. 

What would Ms Steffens and her organization (who use a lion logo and lion pictures on their website) have us as filmmakers do about the captured and captive-bred lions we see here in Africa on farms, in zoos and in backyards? Ignore them? Euthanize them? ‘Free’ them? Unload them at the headquarters of the WCC? What about the equally sentient pets; the dogs and cats they seem to ignore. Are they not captive too? Are all pet owners not exploiting their charges to satisfy their own emotional needs?

It is easy to vilify. It is much harder to find solutions.

Thinking out of the box: 

We have learned to try and find ways to engage rather than antagonize; to find the root causes of the human/predator conflict, and to help find practical solutions to save both lion and farmer in the long term by influencing the minds or perceptions of viewers. In our experience, most people do not hate non-human animals. They don’t treat them badly because they are bad people, but because they are desperate, or ignorant or misinformed, or culturally biased. Most of those that resist change also firmly believe that scientists, conservationists, rangers or activists have no empathy with or understanding of their very real and practical problems.

Tauana Films history with Mr Valentin Gruener and Modisa: 

We met a young man called Valentin Gruener in Maun in 2012, He was fresh from Germany and he wanted to work with and save lions in Africa. His grand plan was to buy a farm, breed lions and set them free in the wild. It was pretty obvious that he was completely ignorant about both lions and conservation, but he had done a tracking course and a basic field guide course and he had worked as a volunteer at some wildlife sanctuary, so his heart seemed to be in the right place.  He had also run out of money, so he needed a job.

We thought it would do him some good to experience the realities of captive rogue lions in the Kalahari, so we recommended him to Willie De Graaff, an influential citizen and cattle farmer who had shot many lions in his life, but had subsequently had a change of heart.  Instead of shooting ‘rogue’ or ‘problem lions’,  he had received permission from the wildlife department to capture them and care for them at his own cost; by no means an ideal situation, but a major mind-shift in someone steeped in the hunting culture that is prevalent on many farms across Africa, and important, because what he does influences younger farmers.  We had heard that he was looking for someone to care for i.e. water, feed and clean enclosures, of the captive lions, African wild dogs and leopards held on Grasslands, a 10,000 hectare game farm.  Mr Gruener got the job and we thought that was that. 

Some months later Gruener contacted us to tell us that he had found a dehydrated lion cub in one of the lion enclosures and had received permission from the owner of the farm to raise her by hand. The cub was one of three born from a captured lioness inside one of the 1-hectare enclosures. The lioness was not alone in the enclosure. She could not distance herself from the other lions as lionesses normally do, because she was in the enclosure before and after giving birth. As a result two of the three siblings had already been played to death by the other lions. 

So she was born into captivity inside a captive lion enclosure and yes, perhaps it would have been better for all concerned if she had died with her two siblings in that enclosure as Ms Steffens seems to suggest. But then we would also never have come to know this incredible individual being who has won the hearts of millions of viewers across the globe and put a face to what we are losing daily in a devastating century-old human/predator conflict in the Kalahari Desert and across Africa. 

We were angry with Mr Gruener for taking the cub and we distanced ourselves from the whole situation, which is why, contrary to Ms  Steffens’ allegations, the footage of the small cub as well as the footage of her taking down her first Hartebeest was NOT filmed by Tauana Films. 

We only became interested in telling her story and the story of the human/predator conflict after Mr Gruener notified us per email that she had taken down a Hartebeest on a walk on the 10,000 hectare farm.  That showed guts. It also showed that unlike the other lions that were stuck inside the enclosures, this one was actually allowed to interact with the natural environment around her, which is rare. We told Mr Gruener that we would like to record her development on condition that no volunteers be allowed to interact with her and that his business partner Mikkel Legarth be side-lined, because we did not like his media-hungry approach, which did not care much for truth as long as it made headlines.  

Conservation films: Creating Awareness:

Across the world filmmakers and wildlife channels are struggling to find ways to inform and educate audiences on the loss of wilderness, diversity, climate change and a whole slate of very real conservation challenges without antagonizing viewers or ‘guilting them out’. 

In the film industry conservation films have often been dubbed the Big C, as in terminal like Cancer to any filmmaker who dares go there. 

Most mainstream wildlife channels opt to ignore any conservation issues by portraying wildlife as existing in a pristine environment untouched by humans and making  the same films we saw thirty years ago over and over again with newer, better equipment. They will not touch controversial subjects for fear of being targeted and labelled as has happened here with us. 

Another approach made popular by stars like Leo Di Caprio portray conservation films as Hollywood thrillers by showing ‘wildlife warriors’ fighting the ‘baddies’ and exposing illegal wildlife trade in animals and animal products. Humans are the heroes and the non-human animals are the silent victims in need of saving. 

This kind of documentary entertains while it shocks audiences into awareness of a problem, and they do work for a short period of time. Unfortunately they often leave audiences with the impression that the problem has been identified and is being handled by dedicated ‘wildlife warriors’ undercover on the ground, so all they have to do is donate to an organization or foundation and continue with their normal lives. 

These kinds of films set out to shame the perpetrators into changing their ways, and they can be very effective in awareness campaigns in specific cases. They don’t change the minds or win the hearts of those who kill and maim for profit. 

Saving Sirga: Journey into the Heart of a lion:

With the series Saving Sirga: Journey into the Heart of a Lion we set out to make people fall in love with a very special lioness and yes, we used her personal history to make viewers aware of the human/predator conflict and the cost of it, even to survivors like Sirga, because she is a direct victim of a devastating silent war, which kills thousands of predators like her as well as other species like elephants across Africa every year. We used our own and borrowed money to make that six-part series, but contrary to what Ms Steffens alleges we have recouped only a fraction of our costs thus far. 

The good news is that the mixture of solid fact and heartfelt emotion in the series worked. Viewers across the world saw it and became emotionally as well as intellectually engaged in the story. They came to love the friendship between Val and Sirga, but they also became aware of the many serious and complex challenges facing lions and other wildlife in the Kalahari. We have the letters to prove it. 

The Saving Sirga fans have also donated a substantial amount of money to two funding sites, both started and managed by Mr Gruener and his company the Modisa Wildlife Project, to build an electrified fence around 2,000 hectares of land so that Sirga can live a relatively free life. Neither Tauana Films nor the producers have benefited from these donations in any way, but we are grateful to the donors for ensuring that this one captive lion will soon have a measure of freedom and a relatively happy life. At the same time we are saddened by the fact that her genes will die with her, because she will not be allowed to breed or live as part of a lion pride in the wild.

Tauana Films has NO involvement with, financial or other shares or interests whatsoever in Mr Gruener’s donation drives; business; the lioness called Sirga; or in the Modisa Wildlife Project. We also have NO say in how any of the funds donated to Mt Gruener’s funding sites are used or managed.  

We as filmmakers achieved our goal of documenting part of a captive life and creating awareness about the human/predator conflict, without vilifying, antagonizing or marginalising the farmers and cattle owners who struggle to eke out a living in a desert around the borders of game reserves across Botswana. That has resulted in a lot of goodwill, which in turn opened up the possibility for open discussion and problem-solving within the broader community, without confrontation, labelling or mud-slinging.

This one captive lioness has given Tauana Films a local and international audience and a platform from which we can openly discuss major conservation issues, including the conservation problems and the tragedy captivity and hand-rearing a lion causes, without fear of ‘guilting out’ and antagonizing viewers, or angering and offending local stakeholders. 

This lioness has also given us the opportunity to open a long-overdue discussion about animal consciousness on film, a subject most scientists shy away from and no broadcaster or wildlife channel has thus far been willing to touch with a barge pole.  

For that we owe her an eternal debt of gratitude, and because of that we’ll always be monitoring what happens to her for as long as she lives. 

I Am Lion

With I Am Lion we’re setting out to make people see that the lioness they came to know and love in Saving Sirga is a sentient individual who deserves to be treated with the same respect afforded to humans, and should have the same legal rights as humans, captive or free. Again, we’re doing this film independently with our own and borrowed money, so Ms Steffens’ allegation of trading on or cashing in on a life for personal gain has no basis in truth.

We would have expected that activists like WCC would do their bit to convince governments worldwide to change human laws, so that the remaining wilderness areas and wild territories on earth can remain the places where evolutionary processes are allowed to continue undisturbed and inviolate against human greed and self-interest, in perpetuity. 

We are very happy indeed to hear that Ms Steffens and everyone else at the WCC believe animal consciousness is a proven fact and that all animals are sentient beings with individuality. Unfortunately, we have found that there is much work still to be done to convince others of these beliefs. 

In our experience, there is a wide gap between believing something and affecting change in the hearts and minds of others. 

There is also a very wide gap between believing in animal consciousness and convincing authorities to legally ascribe sentience and equal rights to all non-human animals, captive or not. 

Sadly, many humans, including many educators, scientists, game guides, farmers, field researchers, filmmakers and conservationists in the real world still hold fast to the materialistic views espoused by Descartes in 1633, namely  that humans are the only conscious and intelligent beings on earth and are therefore the rightfully appointed custodians of all other life forms and territories on earth; that all ‘non-human animals’ are inferior biological organisms; that any territory on land and sea and in the sky that is occupied by wildlife species are ours to take and control; and that the lives of all domesticated and/or wild animals are ours to use at our convenience. 

I’m sure that Ms Steffens will find hypocrisy and slick strategizing in much that has been written here to justify her own ‘higher’ beliefs and perspectives. 

What has the CWW done for Captive Wildlife?

We say, Ms Steffens and CWW, show us what you have achieved over the past forty years and what you are doing right now to change hearts, minds and the laws of humans. 

We’re running out of time. Instead of working against one another we should be coordinating our efforts on behalf of the captive animals as well as the wildlife that still remains.  

Instead of patronizing and vilifying those of who have been trying to affect change honestly and transparently for decades, we should be thinking of ways to save every life and every individual we can. 

We know what we as producers have been doing; we’ve been battling on against all the odds for forty years to find ways to engage audiences through the medium of film; to make them aware of the inexorable loss of wilderness, diversity and magnificent beings large and small that share our planet with us. 

Despite our best efforts we and many other filmmakers, scientists and conservationists feel despondent, because we have lost 90% of all wild lions and 65% of all wild species across the globe on our watch. 

We charge you, the new generation of wildlife enthusiasts and activists to get out here and do better.

Like the hunter-gatherers of old, we thank this one incredible hand-reared yet individualistic lioness for making it possible for us to reach and interact with millions of like-minded as well as other-minded viewers across the world. 

Apologies to Marc Bekoff and Psychology Today

I have not met Marc Bekoff, but I have read and watched many of his books, articles and his talks. I respect his compassion, his open-mindedness and his opinion. Because of that, I took the liberty to ask him to view a rough-cut of I Am Lion and to give his feedback good or bad. 

This world-renowned animal activist did not ignore me or refuse to answer my email. Instead he took the trouble to view the film that very same day before giving his comments. 

I thank him for his time and generosity. His response to I Am Lion was honest and open and exceeded anything we could have hoped for. 

I apologise sincerely for any inconvenience or embarrassment caused to either Marc Bekoff, or Psychology Today and assure them that their belief in this film is not unwarranted. 

We do not know Ms Steffens either, but her deliberate misunderstanding of facts and her extremely personal slant does not illicit respect for her or her organization. She purposely set out to do a character assassination on the producers of I Am Lion without taking the time to view the film or making contact with the producers to clarify her facts before passing judgement. 

NOTE:  

I Am Lion is an independent film made by Tauana Films, an independent film producer, for the international market. 

We have no intention whatsoever of keeping I Am Lion exclusive to donors with deep pockets only. To suggest that is ludicrous, incorrect and vindictive and goes against everything we stand for. 

Once this feature-length film is completed (in about 14 days) we shall select a platform from which we can stream it ourselves and where anyone will be able to access and view it for a nominal amount. 

We did promise the few individuals who kindly donated what they could via the Tauana Films website to help us finish this film, that we would give them an exclusive first viewing of I Am Lion, and that we would do it on Vimeo via a one-time password. 

We make no excuses for that. It is called good manners.

Tauana Films holds all rights to I Am Lion. It has not been commissioned by or sold to any broadcasters, nor has it been given to any agent for distribution, because it is not yet completed. We are in Cape Town right now to finish the post-production. 

Once it has been completed we will decide which platform will best suit this film and let everyone know where they can watch it. 

7 thoughts on “I AM LION: Tauana Films Defends Depiction of Hand-Reared Lioness in a Film Exploring Sentience in Non-Human Animals

  1. August 25, 2019
    In the past weeks, I have read as much as I could find on Saving Sirga and I Am Lion and have communicated with you, and have been rewarded with responses that far exceeded my expectations. What I had not seen prior to tonight is the piece by Ms. Steffens. Reflexively, as I scrolled down the page, I kept thinking of how I would respond to her absurd criticism. The brilliant and exhaustive manner with which you address her perverse concerns should be rewarded by an honorary PhD. In my shock and anger, all I could come up with is the thought that in her view, the only ethical manner of making these films would have been to have them produced and crewed by animals. I guess primates would have done the best job. But then, one could be accused of nepotism. As a compromise, perhaps you could give Sirga credit as Executive Producer. Respectfully yours, MF

    • Thank you so much for your comment Michel! It really helps to hear your thoughts. It’s always difficult to respond to the kind of criticism from Ms Steffens, because it is very personal and also often rather irrational. On the one hand we understand their concerns. We certainly do not enjoy seeing any lion or any animal for that matter sitting in a cage or being exploited in any way.
      Sirga’s story is incredibly important, because she puts a face to what we’re losing every day across Africa. She’s legitimate and real, because she is a direct victim of a devastating human/predator conflict that kills hundreds of lions in only one area of the Kalahari Desert every year in a country where wild animals enjoy a high degree of government protection. The picture across Africa is much more devastating. We were aware of the conflict, but Sirga’s history and the friendship between her and Val gave us the first real opportunity to highlight it without making a film that would ‘guilt out’ viewers or antagonize local farmers.
      We didn’t want to do another Blood Lions. We wanted to create awareness without anger or finger-pointing, because we don’t think farmers set out to be bad people. We just wanted people to feel the majesty of a lion; to fall in love with Sirga and begin to understand the complex social system of lions, which makes it almost impossible for conservationists to re-integrate them back into the wild once they have been taken out of it. In I Am Lion we take it one step further to examine consciousness in these misunderstood ‘man-eaters’.The fact that Sirga could connect with the natural processes just added another layer to her story.
      Doing a confrontational documentary on the human/predator conflict alone would not have had nearly the same effect and Sirga is the only lioness we know who has had to learn everything about living in a wild habitat without having any lion role models to learn from.
      We’re comfortable that we’ve told her story and that it has made viewers pay attention, which is all we wanted to do.
      Apologies for the long answer, and thank you again for your wonderful comments. You are why we make films!
      Yes! Sirga deserves executive producer status! She is given credit on the both the Saving Sirga and I AM LION titles, and she certainly deserves it! 

  2. Simply put, your text should be compulsory reading for anyone involved with or interested in wildlife conservation. Besides hiring a major P.R. firm, there must be a way to get the message to the appropriate NGOs and to the general public. Wish it were my area of expertise. Thank you again and again for the enlightenment.

    • Merci mon ami Michel d`avoir partagé ce post!
      Je viens tout justement de lire ce texte qui me touche au coeur profondément. Ignorance et politisation sembles être au rendezvous. Ce serait formidable si le filme sortirait un jour en version française. Ce serait un magnifique projet et ce, tu as une certaine expertise, je crois.

      Many thanks for sharing this post Michel. Your comments are bang on and I will certainly share thi with all with my friends.

      Tarina Jozefowicz: Such intelligence, thoughtfulness and dedication will surely be rewarded.

      • Thank you so much for your comments and your thoughts on I AM LION, Philippe. It is greatly appreciated.
        Love the comments for Tarina! Thank you! 🙂

  3. CWW is a joke. They have no credibility what so ever. Just a very very small group of extremely misguided vengeful bitter people who don’t know the first thing about conservation. They have opinions. That’s it. They are a spin factory. They’ve been trying to seem legit for years. They are completely irrelevant but causing trouble. Not in the way they say they want to . They are irritating parasites. They even have a group that was formed specifically to point out how bad they are. It’s called Watching the CW Watchdog on FB. They call them out about Kevin Richardson.

    • Hi Nancy, thank you so much for your most welcome letter and the information in it.
      We’ll definitely have a look at the Watching the CW Watchdog and reach out to Kevin Richardson too!
      This vicious attack really took us aback at first, because we have never encountered any such a response from any of our films, let alone from someone who had not even seen a film like I AM LION.
      The timing was very bad, because we were on a tight 14 days timeline to complete the film in the studios in Cape Town when Marc contacted us and asked us to urgently read and respond to a comment on Psychology Today.
      As a result we only had one day to digest that bile before responding.
      We know what they said is total rubbish and we have apologized to Marc and Psychology Today, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially since I AM LION is a very special film, which brings completely new insights into a large predator, which is still viewed by many as a mindless, instinct-driven killing machine.
      In the end we’re really just sad that someone like Marc Bekoff, who is a respected author of 31 books on animal sentience, animal welfare and conservation, and a world authority in animal behavior, had to endure such vicious and uncalled for venom from people without manners simply because he was kind enough to agree to watch the rough-cut of a film and genuinely liked it!
      Kevin Richardson is lucky to have so many people to rally to his defense. Great to know that the reasonable and like-minded people still outnumber the ones who tried to beat us down!
      Many thanks again for your words of encouragement. It’s greatly appreciated.

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