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😄)