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Animal shows charged with fakery.

Should wildlife photographers and filmmakers stage or fake scenes with wild animals? Should they be allowed to harm animals for the sake of educating the public about nature? If they fake scenes, should they acknowledge it?

In February, the Denver Post reported that Marty Stouffer and other wildlife filmmakers often staged scenes for their films. Post writers Mike McPhee and Jim Carrier reported that photographers sometimes set up animals in pens or pits or facilitate a fight scene or use tame animals to "attack" humans.

St. Louis' KETC-Channel 9 says it will wait for the results of a PBS investigation before it decides whether to yank Stouffer's "Wild America" from the air.

KETC and other PBS stations have been airing a series of 110 of Stouffer's shows for 13 years.

They have been in reruns for the last 2 1/2 years, according to PBS' Associate Director of National Press Relations Harry Forbes, and their broadcast rights will soon expire.

KETC Program Director Patricia Kistler said the station will await the results of the PBS investigation. "[Stouffer's shows] have always been well received and he's always been a well-respected producer, so we're giving him the benefit of the doubt," Kistler said. "We feel PBS is in the best position to spearhead the investigation, so we'll await those results and take the appropriate action."

KETC President and CEO Michael Hardgrove was more blunt. "If the charges have a grain of truth, Stouffer's gone," Hardgrove said. "His reputation is already pretty seriously damaged."

PBS plans to have an expert review Stouffer's shows to determine if scenes appear to have been faked, Forbes said. He did not know when the investigation would begin.

The Denver Post story quoted Stouffer as saying, "Film costs $125 a roll.... We don't have eight or 10 or 100 hours of film to leave rolling until one of these fish grabs a bug."

"Marty Stouffer himself adamantly, passionately denies these allegations," Forbes said. "We're not going to jump the gun and yank these shows."

Stouffer is currently looking for funding for PBS to renew the rights and to produce 10 new shows, Forbes said.

The Post article also quoted Wyoming cinematographer Wolfgang Bayer as saying former St. Louis Zoo Director Marlin Perkins staged scenes for his "Wild Kingdom' program, calling him "one of the worst offenders." "They were totally ruthless," Bayer is quoted as saying. "They would throw a mountain lion into a river and film it going over a waterfall."

Current St. Louis Zoo Director Charles Hoessle worked with Perkins on several "Wild Kingdom" shows and said many of the early nature shows did some staging. For example, close-up shots of captive animals in zoos would be interspersed with live action footage, Hoessle said. Nocturnal events and some capture scenes that would have been difficult or impossible to film in the wild would be staged. "That was the technique of the times," Hoessle said.

An acknowledgement that some scenes were staged would be run at the end of the show, Hoessle said. "To my knowledge, Marlin never did anything that harmed animals," Hoessle said. "He really loved animals. He's do out of his way to make sure they weren't harmed."

Hoessle credits Perkins and "Wild Kingdom" with "bringing nature to the world," and cultivating generations of conservationists and environmentalists. As for Perkins sending a mountain lion over a waterfall, Hoessle said: "I don't believe Marlin would have done that."

Bayer also alleges that a filmmaker in Tanzania set a brush fire in the Serengeti Plain and filmed animals running through the flames. George Casey of Graphic Films in San Diego directed "Africa: The Serengeti" and several other films for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

The St. Louis Science Center is currently running "Africa." Casey said game wardens in the Serengeti Plain conduct controlled burns every year to promote fresh grass growth. He filmed one such burn for "Africa," but no animals were running through it, although he said it would have made the scene more interesting.

"They don't run through [the fire] in panic," Casey said. "Almost any animal can outrun a fire like that. They seem very used to Serengeti grass fires."

Casey has received letters accusing him of staging scenes and harming animals. He says quite the reverse is true. He and his crew must stand, by and watch animals attack each other according to local laws. "We have to stand by and let nature take its course," Casey said.

He is aware of the allegations against Stouffer and has heard stories over the years, but declined to repeat what he called hearsay. Casey said filmmakers' roles in exploiting and abusing animals in the wild are "minute" compared with that of big game hunters. He has known hunters to bait a tree with a dead animal and then shoot the leopard or other animal that comes to retrieve it.

Said Casey: "I'd like to see more journalistic ire against trophy hunters."

Staci Lonati is a reporter with the St. Louis Daily Record.
COPYRIGHT 1996 SJR St. Louis Journalism Review
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Title Annotation:'Wild America' and 'Wild Kingdom' under attack for alleged cruelty to animals
Author:Lonati, Staci
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:Apr 1, 1996
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