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David Murdock: Nostalgia for nature shows

 
By David Murdock
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Posted on 6/30/2015, 10:35 AM

The other night, I had the strangest "nostalgia attack" -- one of those times when something triggers an almost overwhelming memory of pleasant times. I was bored and channel-surfing and came across a nature documentary.

I grew up in the 1970s, and the first thing that pops to mind when I see, say, a cheetah chasing down an impala on television is "Mutual of Omaha is people you can count on when the going's tough."

That phrase cannot be spoken; it must be sung to the tune of the advertisement.

That's just how ubiquitous "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" was back then. The show aired on Sunday nights -- right before "The Wonderful World of Disney" -- and I always watched it. "Wild Kingdom" starred Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler as the hosts in the incarnation I best remember, but neither was really on-screen all that much.

I mostly remember Perkins' introductions and his voice-overs narrating what was happening on-screen. Of course, Fowler became famous all over again for his numerous appearances on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." The real stars of the show, however, were the animals they featured.

I never really thought about how much the narrative arc of "Wild Kingdom" had affected me until the other night. When I stopped to watch the nature show I'd found, there was a springbok -- a sort of antelope native to the African savannah -- on the screen.

I stopped because the springbok was "pronking," which was fascinating. By the way, I only know what "pronking" is because the narrator was explaining it.

"Pronking" is a behavior among some antelopes where the animal leaps high into the air with its back arched and its legs stiff. It's goofily engrossing. The narrator explained it by noting that the term itself is derived from an Afrikaans word meaning "showing off," but he also said that scientists aren't quite sure for whom the springboks are showing off. It might be some sort of signal to other springboks or it might be some sort of signal to potential predators.

Y'all know where this one is going. Anyone who has ever seen a nature documentary in which a prey animal is set up in the narrative like these springboks were knows this segment is not going to end well for the happy little pronking springboks.

Sure enough, the scene cut to a leopard watching the springboks, and the narration switches to the leopard's point of view. And he got one -- let's just leave it at that. He got one.

Then he dragged it up into a tree -- which was fairly impressive since the springbok was nearly as big as the leopard -- to keep it away from pirating lions and scavenging hyenas.

I don't begrudge the leopard a meal, but I never realized how the nature documentary filmmakers set us up so well. Just about the time that I started being delighted by the springboks' unusual behavior, the leopard shows up. Honestly, these shows manipulate our emotions like that through creative editing.

I am sure that the pronking scenes and the kill scenes were not filmed at the same time. In fact, it might not have been the same animals. The filmmakers try to "tell a story" so that the viewer gets emotionally invested.

It works. The most crushing scene I ever saw on one of these shows happened a few years ago. I don't recall the name of the show or what channel it was on, but I vividly remember the scene -- a mother lion trying to protect her cubs from harm. She was moving them one at a time from one location to another, in much the same way a mother cat moves her kittens. For some reason, she felt the first location's safety was compromised, and she found a new spot.

What she didn't know was that the new spot she chose was right on top of a cobra's nest. She went out hunting and came back to find her cubs dead. They didn't show the cobra striking the cubs, but they showed them all sprawled out under a tree. That scene was so powerful I think I held my breath.

The cobra, still angry, struck the mother lion, and there were several minutes of footage of her dying from the venom.

Lions don't have human emotions, and I have no idea what she felt as she faded away, wandering around drunkenly trying to figure out what happened. I know what I felt, though. It was absolutely heart-rending.

The nature documentaries made today are often quite edgy. My pleasant memories of "Wild Kingdom" don't include such scenes.

Sure, I understood what was going to happen when they switched scenes from prey to predator, but Marlin and Jim somehow made it seem more educational than emotional, more natural than contrived. I miss them.

David Murdock is a correspondent for The Gadsden (Ala.) Times.