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The "Reel" Picture.

Posted on 23/08/2017
Filed under: Common Sense

wolf sleepingI often hear people talk about dogs as if they are the one species on this entire planet that wants and needs to be active and stimulated constantly. In fact there are hundreds of books that purport to show you just how to go about doing that, in order to stop your dog going mad...

The truth is that dogs want and need the same as every other living being on the planet; to do as little as necessary to survive, taking life as it comes and getting by in the societies that they find themselves living in, in the most stress free manner they can- just like us! What animal would even consider wasting time and valuable energy on something that has no net benefit? Where do we get this idea from?

When these same people, who normally expect to see dogs moving at constant Olympic sprinter pace, encounter a dog owned by someone who has chosen to adopt AB and see for themselves how totally calm and relaxed the dog is, they can easily misread the reality and interpret what they see as the dog being bored or depressed. There is little wonder, with the information that they have been given to date, that these misinterpretations and subsequent misguided criticisms are so common.wolf sleeping

These assumptions can easily be made because so many people’s impression of traditional dog training methods involve dogs being incited to perform by people shouting, squealing, whistling or generally going rather crazy when working with their dog, the idea seems to be that a dog must be wound up as much as possible to accomplish anything. They’ve seen it elsewhere so it must be the correct way of doing it, no?

Also there is the fact that many people believe they know more about dogs than they actually do, simply because dogs are their interest and they watch a lot of documentaries about them.  Unfortunately, there is a lot of “warped” information about dogs available through popular media which claims to inform and educate. I’m thinking here primarily of the television documentaries that wish to educate but have to very carefully compromise that intention with the more (financially) essential need to entertain and engage  their audience. Unfortunately, this means they often have to take liberties with the truth in order to avoid losing their audience. One of these liberties is the speed at which certain events are presented as happening. This is one of the main reasons we seem to have accepted the idea that a dog’s natural life is one of constant work, movement, danger and stimulation.

wolf sleepingEven though we sometimes hear of professional documentary film-makers tracking an animal for three weeks or more without catching one single glimpse of it, there still seems to be the common belief that what we see on screen in 60-90 minutes of “as it happens” documentary-just like the TV series “24”. These time-compressed activities give the impression that animals (particularly wolves) are on the go all day long, never stopping to catch their breath in their struggle for survival. This thinking is extremely prevalent; just this week, I saw an article by a dog expert (!) that said domestic dogs barked because they were bored and the reason wolves didn’t do this was because they didn’t have the time to get bored! This expert obviously hasn’t seen the amount of time these animals spend doing absolutely nothing, when opportunity permits.

We all have no trouble accepting that lions sit around doing absolutely nothing for huge amounts of their time but can’t seem to come to terms with the idea that our dogs would do the same, if given a chance (if they could just get away from manic humans!).

A good example of how this time-compressed information can mislead would be a brilliant fifty five minute programme about one of the really special wolves of Yellowstone, a wolf that happened to be a favourite of the renowned film-maker Bob Landis. Bob’s project on this wolf took him three hundred days a year and four of those years to put together. This required not only following, when possible, the particular wolf, capturing the events that shaped its life but also  locating and filming a litter of wolf pups that happened to have one youngster that looked very much like the adult he was following. This would mean that a credible life story could be made possible, purporting to show the wolf from a very young age; a highly entertaining and engaging story. This artistic licence isn’t any of Bob Landis’ doing but TV producers must keep their audience engaged and the alternative reality, that a life story like that would be impossible to film, is not what people want to hear.wolf sleeping

As with all of these documentaries, there is always a liberal use of precious stock footage that has been previously filmed. This footage can be shot out of sequence, from a different time period and even involve completely unrelated animals. Sometimes years separate the fast paced 'action' and whilst there is absolutely no intention to deceive the viewer, some unrelated footage has to be used to present a free flowing representation of the facts but still fill in the visual gaps.

All of the best wild life documentary film-makers are more than delighted when they get a piece of behaviour that will be loved by, or amaze, the viewer, like a grizzly bear rolling down a hill, a number of Elk babes leaping around the meadow. Known affectionately as 'the money shot' (no, not that sort!) these are the events that will sell the film to a television company and get the movies into our homes, not forgetting bringing some well deserved income to the dedicated camera man.

The outcome of the “patchwork” approach to film making is that those seeing the end production can easily come to believe that the 'action' captured is representative of the every day life of that animal. The truth is that what was actually witnessed by the film maker, in real time, especially when the process involves predators, is the animals sleeping a great deal of the time, while their prey spend most of their time grazing. Any other “action” is precious and TV gold.

wolf sleepingI can remember driving at 6am along a road that led to a prime wolf watching area when I came across Bob Landis filming 5 wolves that were feasting on an elk carcass, approximately 70 metres from us. I immediately froze where I was. I stayed perfectly still and silent in my car and it was clear that Bob was less than pleased to see anyone else there, something that was perfectly understandable because who knows how many weeks he had waited for that scene or one like it? Unfortunately, after another 10 minutes another car appeared and that was too much for the wolves who quickly disappeared back into the tree line.

I know that getting an accurate understanding of any species demands hours, weeks, even years of patient observation, something that I have not only discussed with professional film-makers but something I’ve also done myself, often spending an entire day just hoping to catch even a glimpse of an animal; some precious movement.

I have been very lucky myself over the years to see more than my fair share of wolf activity but it still requires patience, even if not in the same league as the film makers.  I can remember spending 5 hours or more on a hillside, perfectly still, waiting and hoping to get just a brief glimpse of a pack of wolves with their new puppies.  A signal from the female's transmission collar let us know that she was somewhere in the woods about half a mile away, so we stayed, taking turns in looking through our scopes and watching for even one pup and just as we were thinking of abandoning the location, we were rewarded with the wonderful sight of eight puppies tumbling into the clearing, followed by the rest of the nurturing pack. To our delight, the adults settled down in the warm sunshine, while the pups played together for another fifteen minutes or more. After some play, the pups too settled down for a nap and we were left watching perfectly still blobs on the ground, for another hour and a quarter that were doing absolutely nothing.
wolf sleeping

I happened to mention to Bob once that I would love to see his cutting room floor as there would be hours and hours of precious real time life of the animals he filmed. To my amazement and joy, the next day he gave me some discs filled with exactly that. As he gave them to me and I thanked him for his generous gift he said that there would be no one else who would want it, so if I could make use of the footage then he was pleased. I’ve never forgotten that gift and although there is no music to boost the drama, or narration by the way of explanation, that real time film has been priceless to me.

When you watch these informative documentaries in the future, imagine how your own life would appear to others if the last five years of your life were to be presented using just the 'action shots' such as, weddings, births, deaths, Christmases, birthday celebrations, holidays etc. Would that be a fair representation of your “everyday” life? I’m sure the viewer would wonder where you got the energy from!

You will certainly be entertained by such TV (I certainly am) and can revel in the fantastic high definition pictures you see but please take the “storylines” with a slight pinch of salt.

Jan Fennell