Friday, 12 December 2014

Badgers on screen: Marty Stouffer's Wild America

If you were raised in the US in the 1980s and had any access to PBS, the rising symphonic score would likely be instantly recognizable, along with the climactic crash of two bighorn sheep rams butting heads as the music reaches its crescendo. I was a regular viewer, though until recently I hadn't seen an episode since I was a pre-teen. Marty Stouffer's Wild America was, for twelve seasons, one of the most popular shows on PBS, and remains quite watchable even in this age of cable TV channels focused on wildlife, with understated narration, breathtaking cinematography, and engaging and unsentimental storytelling that often focused on the life-and-death conflicts between predators and prey. (In the early 1990s Stouffer faced a number of animal welfare charges and accusations of wide-ranging staging of ostensibly "natural" scenes that somewhat dimmed his popularity, although he has consistently denied those charges. I remember at the time being profoundly disappointed in the staging claims, though after seeing so many nature documentaries clearly focusing on captive animals in recreated "wild" scenarios in the years since it seems to be pretty standard practice.)

Not long ago I recalled Wild America and wondered if there were any badger-related episodes. In fact, there are at least two. In season 8, a two-part episode, "Weasels: Sleek and Savage," gave a bit of attention to a winter-fattened badger, but it was season 11 that featured an entire episode about North American badgers, regrettably titled "Belligerent as a Badger." You can download episodes online--but only from the U.S., so I had to go the old-fashioned route and ordered the Collector's Edition DVDs of seasons 7-12. 

As I remembered, the cinematography is top-notch, with some great close-up shots of badgers in action. The filming takes place primarily in the winter, so the badgers are quite roly-poly, though no less compelling. One impressive scene is of a badger who manages to drive a bobcat away from its freshly-killed pheasant. This follows with the coincidental arrival of yet another badger, and a fight between the two over the stolen bird, with the original raider ending up the victor. (Certainly much of this scene seems highly staged, but it's still impressive to see these carnivores interact.) My favourite part of the half-hour show, however, is a charming moment in the spring between a nursing mother and her kits in their burrow, and the gentleness between the three that belies the ferocious reputation so often attributed to these much-maligned animals. I would have appreciated less pandering to "mean badger" stereotypes--and, to be fair, Stouffer's narration makes clear that badgers are generally aggressive only when threatened, though this gets lost in the constant description of their fierceness--but on the whole the episode is well worth watching.

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