Wildebeests at the Watering Hole

A new series is beginning on BBCA (BBC America) tonight, “The Hunt,” originally broadcast last December on BBC One. Narrated by David Attenborough (who also narrated the brilliant “Planet Earth” documentary series), this new series apparently does something I’ve really never seen in a nature program: sympathize with the predator.

Having grown  up watching Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” and numerous National Geographic specials, I am of course familiar with “the hunt.” Almost a sub-genre of the nature documentary, the hunt is usually set on an African savanna , either on the grassy plains or at the watering hole.

On the plains we see a herd of grazing antelope or zebras, just peacefully going about their business. Until a pair of eyes appears, hidden in tall grass. A lion, or maybe cheetah, lurks, crouched and waiting for the right moment. Suddenly she attacks! A single antelope, young and vulnerable, has wandered too far away from the herd’s protection. The big cat expertly counters the panicked animal’s evasive efforts. Where is the rest of the herd? Separating itself from the unfortunate victim, bunching ever more tightly together. Not us, you can see their tiny brains surmising with relief. Not today.

At the watering hole a group of wildebeests stands at the water’s edge. Surely they know how dangerous it is to drink. And yet the great striped and maned animals lower their horned heads because they must. All is peaceful. Until suddenly, instantly the crocodile springs out of the water! Seizing one of the wildebeests in its jaws, it drags the struggling creature into the water. Do the other wildebeests come to their companion’s rescue? No, they are scrambling up the bank as quickly as possible. Not them; not today.

Whenever terrible things happen to good people, I often think about those nature documentaries. How random and violent and banal it is. Just another day on the savanna. There’s really nothing you can do to prevent a lion from taking down a gazelle. The lion is not evil; the gazelle is not innocent. There is no justice needed. No criminal act has occurred.

To hope that human existence is so very different may be folly. Can predatory behavior really be controlled? When someone commits a crime, it’s interesting how often we either dismiss analysis of motive (he’s evil) or over-analyze and excuse the motive (he was abused as a child). Or we blame the victim for not thwarting the predator’s behavior (what did she expect, wearing that miniskirt and walking home alone at that late hour?) or inflict punishment by projecting our collective fear onto an otherwise innocent scapegoat (human sacrifice at worst; looking the other way at best).

In some ways, we are all just wildebeests at the watering hole, no more and no less. We are at the mercy of a chaotic universe, despite our efforts to elevate ourselves above the animal kingdom. It’s like we think we can intellectualize our way out of the mire: we have laws and complex social rules and education and religion. Civilization regulates primitive impulses.

Maybe that’s why we’re so fascinated by predators? Maybe there’s enough distance between the potential and immediate threat that we can be intrigued by the danger and power instead of terrified? Because how else can one explain the multitude of “Law and Order” type of television shows and the extensive selection of suspense/thriller novels in bookstores.

I have always sided with the prey in those nature documentaries, even as I must also (reluctantly) acknowledge the thrill I experience watching a predator at work. Although I personally find wildebeests to be ungainly, unsympathetic, and unintelligent-looking animals, it’s mighty hard to imagine myself rooting for the crocodile.

That’s why I’m looking forward to the first episode of “The Hunt” on BBCA tonight. (It’s running at 8:00 pm Central Time, which means 9:00 pm Eastern and Mountain and 8:00 pm Pacific. FYI😄)


About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Life, Nature, Television and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Wildebeests at the Watering Hole

  1. Sally Cissna says:

    Wow! This is really good, Katie! As I started reading, I realized I was thinking about guns. We can do such damage to each other, physically, mentally, even spiritually, with our own two hands, our mouths, our feet, but the gun enhances our abilities as predator beyond measure. As Marshall Macluen said that the “media is an extension of men” so to does the gun become an extension from the hands, become in reality new human hands, giving the predator extreme ability to kill without touching the victim…a sterilized hunt, free from blood, effort, and natural interation between the predator and prey.


    • That’s an intriguing observation, Sally. I also couldn’t help thinking about the gun debate, although I wasn’t sure I was finding the answers I thought I might, mostly because I couldn’t make the animals-to-humans leap as neatly as I anticipated.

      I noticed two things in last night’s episode that really stood out to me. First, the predators lost the battle most of the time. I guess that’s why you were supposed to sympathize with them. While antelope and zebras could simply put their heads down and graze, the poor predators had to work hard for their meals. Plus, while grazers appeared to have limited intellect, the predators had to think and strategize and nimbly change tactics in shifting circumstances, which again made us naturally sympathetic to their “plight.”

      The other thing that stuck out to me was how completely passive and disconnected the other herd animals were when one of their own was under attack. You could see it in the footage. Every wildebeest just stood by and watched as the wild dogs brought down their victim, just completely disinterested, dispassionate, detached. They watched their former companion’s life end, and then it was time to start eating again. Kind of scary to see how “sheep”like the grazers were. And disheartening, too, if I tried to compare what I’d just witnessed to the human experience.

      When the group of grazers stuck together and presented the business end of their individual weapons (horns or hooves) en masse to the predator, they were fine. But if one if their number got separated from the herd and was set upon by the predator, the entire herd just let the tragedy unfold. They could have rushed over to protect the victim, but it was like the victim was no longer part of the group. That was the scariest part to me: how little it takes to have the group collectively disavow a vulnerable member who has gotten into trouble. The group will defend itself from attack but not go out of its way to protect a member that is separated (in any way or for any reason) and under attack.


    • And I should have said first thing: Thank you!!!!!


    • Plus one more thing. What you said about the sterilized hunt and being free from the necessary interaction between predator and prey, that’s a really good point if it’s true. Not being a hunter, I don’t know what it’s like to pull a trigger and kill a living creature. Maybe it’s not a sterile experience after all. But if it is, then you’re right.

      The whole time I was watching the episode I kept thinking about the horror of an existence in which you’d need to kill regularly in order to live. Which is a really privileged kind of “horror,” I realize. But wow. I feel so lucky that death does not haunt my daily life.

      And then I feel both guilty and naive. Because of course it does! Like the wildebeests that have been spared for the moment, I’m distancing myself from it in order to keep going and continue grazing.


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