Wildlife Films and Animal Consciousness

Time is running out

At the end of October 2018, The World Wildlife Fund announced in a press conference that more than 60% of all wild species on earth were lost over the past 40 years. Most of those losses were caused by “overexploitation and agriculture, both linked to continually increasing human consumption.” 

It’s not going to get better. In Africa alone the human population is set to double in the next 30 years. Conflict between humans and wildlife is bound to increase.

At the present rate of extinction most wild species on earth will disappear in the next thirty to fifty years, before most of us ever know or understand that other species are conscious beings with the right to life and freedom of movement.

Pleading ignorance is no longer an option.

A Milestone in Human History

Most of us still view non-human animals as instinct-driven organisms without thought or feelings, which we can use as we please. That view is no longer valid.

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, the first scientific document to formally recognise consciousness in a wide range of animal species, was publicly proclaimed way back on July 7, 2012.

It was signed by a group of eminent scientists at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, in England.

The event was recorded for posterity by CBS’s 60 Minutes, and witnessed by some of the greatest minds of our time, including the renowned theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking.

The Declaration is a milestone in human history, not only because it publicly acknowledges that non-human animals have the neural substrata to support consciousness, but because it broadens the conversation from consciousness in large-brained animals like the Big Apes, Elephants, Whales and Dolphins, to include almost all other animals on earth.

According to the Declaration the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence proves that birds, reptiles, octopuses, and even insects are capable of consciousness.

Yet, despite its auspicious and public start, the findings of the Cambridge Declaration made no international headlines.

Today, few researchers in the field and even fewer ordinary citizens know of its existence.

Ignoring the Truth about Consciousness

Wildlife Channels and wildlife filmmakers have a special responsibility. They should alert and inform viewers about conservation issues, new research and changing perceptions around wildlife. They make a living from wildlife, after all. For them wildlife cannot only be about entertainment.

So why are wildlife filmmakers and traditional wildlife channels ignoring the most exciting scientific news impacting the world of wildlife since Darwin?

The obvious answer is that they are playing it safe, because consciousness in animals has major moral and financial implications.

It is hard to continue ignoring the realities of human encroachment into wildlife areas, the breeding of animals in captivity, the use of animals in experiments, or the inhumane treatment of domestic and wild animals in general, when we are talking about thinking sentient beings that can feel pain.

Thankfully, some brave scientists have let the genie out of the box.

Filmmaking: The Past, the Present, and the Future.

The conversation around consciousness is not going away. On the contrary, it will only intensify as our knowledge of the workings of human and animal brains expands.

As wildlife filmmakers Jürgen and I have spent most of our lives in the company of wild animals. For us the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness finally validated what our observations in the field showed us over a lifetime of watching wild animals coping with and adapting to life’s many challenges.

We’ve come a long way.

In the early eighties and nineties, the idea that there could be more to animals than muscle and instinct was considered absurd. Any filmmaker who dared to say that animals had feelings or intelligence risked being written off as an anthropomorphic crank.

It’s good to know that forty plus years of recording and getting to know individual animals and animal families in the field did not cloud our judgement. On the contrary, it gave us time to observe more closely than most, and to understand the interaction and inter-dependence between animals and their habitat better than most.

In the eighties, one of the largest and best known wildlife channels in the world told us to delete the word ‘intelligence’ from our script before they would license a film. Today the word ‘intelligence’ is used routinely in natural history films.

At that time ascribing feelings and emotions to animals in films could ruin a filmmaker’s professional reputation. Today animals can be ‘rebels’ or ‘rulers’, ‘kings’ and ‘queens’, ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’. They can ‘mourn’ their young, have ‘rivals’, ‘alliances’, even ‘concubines. They can feel ‘loss’, ‘rage’, ‘fear’ and ‘empathy’. They can even remember past injustices and conspire to avenge them.

All these emotive words describe human traits and feelings and imply consciousness, yet the words ‘consciousness’ and ‘sentience’ remain unacceptable, except when used to describe the Big Apes. They and some other large-brained animals are now accepted as being ‘special’ and having varying degrees of sentience.

We predict that within the next five years the words ‘conscious’, ‘sentient’, ‘deliberate’. ‘personality’ and ‘individual’ will be as common as the word ‘intelligent’ has become when describing animal behaviour.

The Battle for Viewership

Traditional wildlife channels are losing viewers and revenue. Every panel discussion the same questions:

How can we compete with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others? What are they doing that we’re not?

Wildlife Channels are throwing Millions of Dollars at the problem. They’re starting their own VOD and streaming services; commissioning fewer, but more expensive high-end programming. The rest of their slates are filled with format-driven series, many of which are stitched together using well-known archival footage.

Why have the viewers stopped watching? The simple answer is, because they’re bored out of their skulls with looking at the same stories, the same formats, the same basic facts and visuals over and over again.

The sad truth is that wildlife channels no longer promote or encourage innovative new stories from independent filmmakers, or thought-provoking exploration into lesser-known aspects of wildlife and wilderness.

Online platforms are attracting more and more viewers, because they are still willing to take a chance on independent filmmakers with divergent views. They still give viewers the option of deciding for themselves what they want to look at.

Life in the Bubble: So many stories, so little innovation!

Across the world major broadcasters continue to spend fortunes to produce stunningly beautiful natural history films. Most keep the illusion of a magnificent wild heritage alive. Sadly, they have little to do with reality.

Film crews equipped with the latest state of the art equipment follow animals by day and by night. They record the most amazing actions and behaviour from every conceivable angle, in different locations. They’re not interested in what’s happening around the ‘characters’ in their film. They’re there to film behaviour and action.

Why does it come as a shock when people are confronted with images of a dead whale with its stomach stuffed with plastic bags? Why are they shocked when they hear that the most iconic predator and prey species on land, sea and in the sky across the globe are facing extinction?

They are shocked, because they have been fed one beautiful sellable fantasy after another. For forty plus years wildlife films have shown them that life in the natural world has its ups and downs, but the earth is a beautiful place and all is well with nature.

Year after year the images on our televisions continue to show pristine habitats where instinct-driven animals with limited intelligence and no self-knowledge survive or die according to the whims of nature.

It is only when the bubble is burst by a daring independent filmmaker that a spate of conservation-minded films piggy-back on the news until the next ‘big story’ comes along.

Wildlife channels have accumulated so much stock footage that they can keep the images of untouched wilderness flickering on our screens long after the last lion, the last tiger, the last elephant and the last bird has disappeared from this earth.

Is this the myth we want to leave our children and their children after them?

The natural world is a majestic place filled with mystery and wonder. There are countless new and innovative stories waiting to be discovered. The amazing scientific strides made over the past hundred years are only the beginning, because our science and our knowledge are still in their infancy. Without wilderness or wild animals we shall never discover those stories.

Why reduce our amazing world to the pretty-but-predictable in our films?

Why refuse to look deeper, or explore more?

The Time has Come

The facts are clear; the earth and all the wild animals in it are in trouble. That does not mean that it’s all doom and gloom.

Knowledge brings enlightenment. We can explore the world and find the new, the innovative, the astounding stories out there and revel in the wild world’s power to adapt and innovate. We can find how species achieve beauty and balance in the chaos of change.

We cannot let our fear of the unknown stop us from thinking and learning.

The time has come to talk about consciousness in animals; to explore the origins and the mysteries surrounding consciousness in both human and non-human animals; to learn about the astonishing discoveries that are being made in the field of neuroscience right now.

The time has come to acknowledge and accept the rights to life and freedom of all non- human animals on earth. We have to learn how to treat captive animals or those used in food production and research in more humane ways. We have to find practical compromises to ensure that the animals that remain in the wild have viable habitats that will sustain them into the future.

Most importantly, we have to start new conversations around wildlife so that they can permeate and influence our own perceptions and those of future decision-makers.

Victor Hugo, one of the greatest French authors of all time said “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

New ideas, new concepts, have lives of their own. Some find a niche and flourish in current thinking. Others have to wait for humanity to catch up to them before being recognised. Shying away from new ideas doesn’t help.

Sooner or later films always come to reflect the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, and the new advances made in the knowledge of the human mind.

Our hope is that those films do not come too late.

Kick-Starting a new conversation

The time has come for us to accept and discuss the idea of consciousness in a wide variety of animal species.

In the 60’s conservationists George and Joy Adamson insisted that lions were sentient individuals with feelings. Their views drew harsh criticism from scientists, who disparaged their life’s work and basically wrote them off as mavericks and cranks.

At that time there were around 250,000 wild lions on earth.

Today the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence proves that most animals are conscious in the same way that we are.

Today there are fewer than 20,000 wild lions left on earth.

It took almost seventy years and 230,000 lions for science to prove the Adamsons right.

We don’t have another seventy years left to argue.

Our Unique Journey

Five years ago, a chance meeting brought us in contact with a young lioness that was trying everything in her power to reach for freedom.

Her story was the perfect vehicle to bring the concept of consciousness and individuality in lions to life for a modern audience.

She was hand-reared, but she was not trained to perform tricks for reward. She was walking in the wild and learning to connect with the wild, but she had had no contact with any other lion since she was ten days old. We realised that whatever this lioness did or knew had to be either instinctive or learnt from personal experience.

We have been filming and observing lions in the field for more than forty years. We believe that animals have varying degrees of consciousness as people do, but we were sceptical.

For three years we observed the lioness and followed her progress as she matured and learned about the wild animals and the territory she found herself in.

Our observations and the footage recorded revealed a highly adaptable, determined individual with a strong sense of self and of ‘other’. We watched as she found ways to communicate her needs and feelings with a human. We watched as she learnt to stalk and hunt her own food like a wild lion, but without a lion pride to learn from. We watched her grow in confidence and knowledge and make deliberate decisions and choices.

Everything she did said Look at me. I see you. I am a conscious being. I want the freedom to live my life on my own terms.”

The science behind the I Am Lion film is solid. We also know that the idea that consciousness is not just the privilege of a few select ‘large-brained’ species will make some television stations reluctant to air it.

We hope that you’ll be watching this film on a wildlife channel in your home soon. If you do we will have succeeded in what we set out to accomplish. If not, we have to find other ways to reach you to kick-start an all-important new conversation about wildlife and the way we view animals.

Tarina Jozefowicz,
Tauana Films

3 thoughts on “Wildlife Films and Animal Consciousness

  1. Animals know how to live their lives on their own terms in a harmless and balanced way with their environment. Humans should learn from them! Without animals planet Earth would die, without humans….
    I’m not so sure.
    The Time has Come to live our lives in a conscious and more caring and compassionate way, respecting other species and sharing this beautiful planet with them.

    • Apologies for the long silence.
      We couldn’t agree more, which is why we decided to make I AM LION.
      If we can convince people to look at other animals in a new way we will change the world.
      The new film will be completed at the end of July!

    • We could not have said this any better! It is as if you’ve already seen I Am Lion! Thank you so very much!

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