The first time I saw a bald eagle in the wild was a profoundly disappointing experience. For this I blame Hollywood. Picture the scene: late-morning on the north coast of the Bay of Fundy, a team of student-ornithologists traipsing through the bush, our quarry of migrating warblers drawing us deep into the trees. We come to a clearing, and our leader – a bearded professor outfitted entirely in khaki – points to the sky. Far above we spot a large bird turning languid circles.
We students suck in our breath. The bird is massive, and although too high up for us to see its regal white head, it is clearly master of its domain. But then we hear a strange sound – a cartoonish, high-pitched meep, meep, meep coming from the bird's general direction – and our exhilaration wavers. Our professor confirms our worst fears: This meeping is the call of the bald eagle.
"Not possible!" we exclaim in unison. "What about that terrifying screech we've long associated with the bald eagle, the one that echoes off canyon walls and carries for miles and puts the fear of death into rodent and human alike?" That screech, says our professor, is one of Hollywood's greatest hoaxes. That screech is actually the call of the red-tailed hawk.
Anyone looking to the world of entertainment for faithful representations of animals is setting themselves up for similar moments of disillusion. In service to the Gods of Compelling Narrative, storytellers of all stripes – from writers to documentarians to feature filmmakers – have consistently pushed the boundaries of fact when it comes to animal behaviour.
Perhaps the most egregious case of such manipulation occurs in Walt Disney's Oscar-winning 1958 "documentary" White Wilderness. In one scene, we watch an adorable bear cub tumble out-of-control down a steep mountainside, eventually crashing to a violent halt against a pile of rocks. This slapstick misadventure is entertaining to watch, until you learn that it was not filmed in the wild but in a Calgary movie studio, the mountain was man-made, and the bear cub was a captive animal who'd been encouraged to slip and fall.
In another famous scene, a group of lemmings fling themselves one-by-one off a cliff into the Atlantic Ocean, embarking either on a great migration or a mass suicide. But experts tell us that wild lemmings do not migrate or off themselves willy-nilly. Instead, the filmmakers had used a spinning turntable to catapult unsuspecting rodents to their demise – not into the Atlantic Ocean, mind, but Alberta's Bow River.
A half-century later, popular culture continues to sensationalize the animal kingdom for narrative effect. Take Liam Neeson's latest vehicle, The Grey, in which a group of snowbound humans are hunted by a pack of bloodthirsty wolves. The film has been unanimously panned by ethologists and animal welfare groups for perpetuating the myth that wolves are murderous, man-hunting beasts (Neeson complicated matters further when he claimed the wolves in the film were not meant to represent "real" wolves but instead "the wolves of mythology and legend"). And even that bastion of authentic wildlife filmmaking, the BBC's Natural History Unit, was recently caught with its pants down when it was revealed that the polar bear birth scene in its hit series Frozen Planet was filmed not in the Arctic, but in a metropolitan zoo.
Examples of this sort of manipulation are legion. But thankfully, all is not lost. There has always been a community of storytellers out there who refuse to let the pull of a compelling narrative overwhelm their commitment to ethics and honesty when it comes to portraying the authentic behaviour and spirit of animals. This community has a bible: filmmaker Chris Palmer's tell-all Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom. And two recent blockbuster productions – one wide-release film and a Broadway play – demonstrate that the act of representing animals truthfully does not, of necessity, diminish a piece of art.
Our first example, ironically, also comes from Disney. In theatres this week, Chimpanzee tells the true story of Oscar, a chimpanzee born in the vast Tai Forest National Park of the Ivory Coast. Filmed over three years and narrated by comic actor Tim Allen, the movie documents Oscar's rambunctious childhood growing up in a troop of wild chimps led by an alpha-male named Freddy. Oscar learns to play, use tools, forage for food and coexist peacefully with his mother and extended family, while the viewer sits gob-smacked at the intelligence, ingenuity and personality of our closest evolutionary relatives.
Then disaster strikes: A rival troop led by an alpha-male named Scar attacks Freddy's troop in an effort to take over a stand of valuable fruit trees. In the melee, Oscar's mother is killed. Suddenly, our protagonist's innocence is lost; an orphaned chimp barely stands a chance in the wild. We watch Oscar wait in vain for his mother to return. We watch the other females spurn his advances. We watch him lose weight and weaken. We assume this is the end.
But then, something incredible happens: Oscar is adopted by none other than Freddy, the brash alpha-male. Freddy invites Oscar to climb onto his back, just as he would his mother's. Crisis averted, childhood resumes and our tale has found its happy ending.
This is a great story. But what makes it great is not just the plot, but the fact that everything that happens in Chimpanzee actually, well, happened. And at no point is wild chimpanzee behaviour misrepresented for the sake of the story. For this, we can thank the director of the department of primatology at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Dr. Christophe Boesch, who has studied wild chimps for more than thirty years and who served as principal scientific adviser on the film.
The moment when Freddy adopts Oscar isn't just heartwarming, it is utterly fascinating. Boesch and his colleagues have never seen anything like it before. And even when Tim Allen provides Oscar with a bit of comic interior monologue, the commentary avoids ascribing thoughts or motivations to the ape beyond those that are entirely probable, considering what we now know about chimps. We anthropomorphize nature in an attempt to empathize with it; the only narrative we know well enough to project with confidence is our own. But thanks to the advance of behavioural science over the last 50 years, Allen's script-writers, to their great credit, were able to resist this primal urge.
The only tricks employed by the filmmakers of Chimpanzee were feats of patience and endurance as they slogged after Oscar and his family through the near-impenetrable Tai jungles, day after week after month. The film begins as a childlike romp in the rainforest, but through the telling, it becomes a serious documentary, breakthroughs included, about life in a wild family.
So, is an honest portrayal of animals only possible through the lens of a camera? Until recently, I would have thought so. But then I sat in an aisle seat at the Princess of Wales Theatre for the stage production of War Horse, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and co-produced to award-winning effect by the National Theatre of Great Britain, Mirvish Productions and South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company.
The story itself, about an English boy named Albert who joins the British army during the First World War to rescue his beloved horse Joey, tends toward the sentimental and the unbelievable in equal measure. What elevates the production to the realm of magic, however, is the way the puppet-masters of Handspring bring the horses to life.
From the moment Joey appears on stage, the audience embarks on a journey that strikes to the heart of what it means to witness the animal spirit, and what it means to participate in the dramatic arts. Joey's three human puppeteers are in plain sight at all times, running alongside or beneath his immense, articulated body. But they imbue every inch of his impressive frame with a body language and vocal register so authentically equine that our disbelief isn't just suspended in those first few moments, it is rendered moot. From the twitch of their ears to the way they scratch their kneecaps with their muzzles to the rise and fall of their torsos as they labour to catch their breath, the horses in War Horse – made of nothing more than steel, leather and aircraft cabling – don't just come alive on stage, they come alive in our minds.
At one point in the story, Joey trots off-stage and straight up my aisle. As he approaches, snorting and clip-clopping, the hairs go up on the back of my neck. His massive frame passes within inches of me, and although my mind understands there is no animal nearby, my body believes the opposite.
Through their unique mixture of imagination, invention and performance, the puppeteers of Handspring have distilled the essence of what it means to be a horse in an entirely authentic and fundamentally human way. Theirs is not just a masterful display of theatrical gimmickry. It is a poignant and potentially transformative act of empathy toward the natural world.
Our instinct for narrative, this quest for story, is one of the qualities that differentiates humankind from the rest of the animal kingdom. It might seem to follow, therefore, that this quest would so often distance us from our fellow creatures. But if we are to respect the foundations of the artistic impulse, our goal should be a greater truth, not a lesser one. When representing animals in order to tell a tale, storytellers of all stripes should take counsel from what Albert tells a skeptical military officer who wants to conscript Joey into the war.
"He is spirited," says Albert of his beloved horse. "But that's the best thing about him."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Andrew Westoll is the author of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction