December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Have the BBC gone overboard with humanising animals in the 'Penguins' series? Plus the horsemeat story served up ...


The penguins in Penguins think just like humans. It doesn’t matter where the colony is – the Falklands, Antarctica, Peru – the BBC have found the most empathetic animals since Babe.

A cormorant, which is an “unruly neighbour, a hazard to the chick” steals part of a penguin’s nest. During the fracas the aggressive seabird waddles over the penguin’s baby son, but the father doesn’t notice at the time as “he’s still attacking the nest-robber.” It goes on: “Then as the chaos subsides, he realises his chick has disappeared. He looks in desperation.” Desperation? Onscreen the father closes his eyes and relaxes in the sun. If he could he’d order a daiquiri, put his hands behind his head and say: “This is the life”. And I certainly wouldn’t put it past this colony of pengmen.

“Then he hears his chick’s call. It’s badly shaken, but alive… nothing some fatherly comfort can’t heal.” Father beak-pokes the baby under his arse: “Being a penguin parent is a full-time job.” The narrative doesn’t fit. It probably wouldn’t fit any living thing – human or otherwise – on Earth. During the film there is a lot of regurgitation, which proves gratifyingly difficult to anthropomorphise.

We go to Peru where the penguins are threatened by terns. The narrator cannot hide his spite. In fact, anything that is not a penguin is a bastard, a yob. Cormorants “squabble”. Turkey vultures “are quite prepared to attack live chicks if they can” – and they fight among themselves. A Belcher’s gull enters a burrow and a penguin chick bends over and squirts liquid nastiness in his face. The narrator sounds so triumphant he might have crapped in the gull’s face himself.

Just from the music you know what is happening onscreen. Fast violin music means attack on the young. A slow, lingering note means dead chick – or chick about to be resurrected by the ubiquitous phrase: “Then, just in time…” Classical Spanish finger-picking means penguin parents are flirting against a setting sun. You expect them to pop open a bottle of Prosecco and skate a waltz wing-in-wing.

The entire series was filmed using hidden cameras – egg-cam, rock-cam, Emperor-cam, swimming-cam. Surely the penguins know this unblinking lump of plastic wheeling up behind them is not of their species. And there’s fifty cameras in each colony, a sub-colony of buzzing Cyclopes. Drugged up on a heavy dose of anthropomorphism, when I saw a mother penguin incubating an egg-cam (Is she barren? Did her husband not mention the vasectomy?), I felt a touch weepy. Nature producers have become more and more reliant on these hidden camera tricks. Perhaps they’re not as unobtrusive as they seem. Whether they’re less disturbing than human cameramen, I’m not so sure.

Well, all that leaves little room for horse meat, which doesn’t really matter because it’s everywhere: the BBC, Lancashire schools, Channel 4, bolognaise.

Both Panorama and Dispatches traced a Findus horsebeef lasagne from a Tesco deep-freeze all the way through Luxembourg, Holland and France to a horse abattoir in Romania. Incidentally, both Findus and Tesco apologised and said it won’t happen again.

I was surprised at the winding route the meal took towards our microwaves. It’s a complex supply chain, open to corruption at every stage, particularly since the massive meat inspector cuts. And in this imbroglio of veterinary drugs, forged passports and criminal gangs, we don’t even know what was in the original horse before it became a burger. Both programmes built a strong argument for buying meat from a known, local farmer.

As I watched, my mind drifted over to Chinatown and an all-you-can-eat buffet that only cost seven quid, and from there to a chewy lamb-thing in pita I scoffed after the pub, not to mention those potato wedges with chilli con something I’ve just eaten in the downstairs café.


IMAGE: Kirsty McWhirter, flickr