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Animal Snuff Films
by Loren Rhoads

You've seen the ads: the papa sea lion bites junior's flipper and bashes the little snot against the beach; the shark's head pops out of the waves to chomp on a gull. For some strange reason--a reason you're unwilling to explore--the violence inherent in nature excites you. You want to find out "why we call them animals."

These nature videos are definitely not for children. It's difficult to believe "The Trials of Life: A Natural History of Behavior" showed on the BBC, let alone The Nature Channel. They must have run some sort of disclaimer: "The following series contains scenes of prurient interest, including bizarre sexual rituals and extreme violence." It's not exactly for "mature" audiences -- they wouldn't get a kick out of the moose's golden shower scene. But watching the tapes made me higher than eating a pillowcase full of Halloween candy.

On the down side, all the tapes suffer from the presence of host David Attenborough. The point he's belaboring is that he is an actual naturalist, actually out in the wild with the camera crew, filming this far-out shit so we couch potatoes can watch it in the comfort of our living rooms. But the last thing I want to see is some middle-aged Brit in khaki, desperately in need of a bath, whispering in the jungle so as not to disturb the gorillas over his shoulder. "The Trials of Life" suffer from the Jacques Cousteau syndrome. I'd prefer more nature, less naturalist.

The first video to arrive, "Hunting and Escaping," is my favorite. It ranges all over the world and all over the animal kingdom, from spotted skunks dancing in North America to a white mantis snagging butterflies in Malaysia, from black-backed gulls attacking puffins in mid-air over the ocean to chimpanzees butchering colobus monkeys on the Ivory Coast of Africa.

"One hunter," Attenborough says, "which is invariably successful is the army ant." The scorpion's stinger is useless against these little guys: they're too small to hit. Even wasps are defenseless as the ants swarm into their nest and carry away their grubs. The tape includes the first ever footage from the inside of an army ant bivouac. Attenborough inserts an optical probe into a wad of three-quarters of a million ants. Despite the greased optic, the ants march up toward his face.

Still more intense: off the coast of Patagonia, eight-ton killer whales throw themselves out of the water to pluck sea lion pups from the beach. I mean, I know whales are mammals and all, but things that big, with that many pointy teeth, should stay in the water. What if great white sharks took the hint and flung themselves ashore on Ocean Beach? Total anarchy!

The footage is beautiful. First, the happy little sea lions frisk like mermaids in the water. Then, in whale vision, the sandy ocean floor rushes beneath an invisible swimmer. Terrified sea lions race away up the beach as the camera bursts out of the water. Better yet is the pup-vision. The cameraman must have laid on the beach, waiting for a whale to pop out of the water in front of him. Yikes.

Not content to trifle with the laws of nature, killer whales also play with their food. After they capture a sea lion, they drag him back into the ocean. Out there, they fling the pups head over flipper, like bad frisbee tosses. You've watched a cat toy with a mouse. Imagine a seal-sized hacky sack.

The second tape, "Fighting," opens with buzzards playing tug-of-war over a shred of meat like a ripped t-shirt. Other highlights include sped-up footage of sea anemones thrashing each other with their tentacles, rattlesnakes wrestling, and zebra moire patterns in slow motion.

Normally considered gentle, giraffes provide the most extreme violence on the tape. Attenborough explains, "Giraffes have no teeth at all in the front of the upper jaw, so they couldn't give a devastating bite if they wanted to. A giraffe's kick can disembowel a lion. But giraffes never kick each other. They fight with their necks. They use their heads like sledgehammers." It's something to see.

Attenborough doesn't define it, but the "Fighting" tape is limited to animals of the same species beating each other up over food or territory or females. Unfortunately for the human viewer, most "fighters" never strike a blow. There is no blood and almost no death. Most animals swagger up, measure themselves against each other, and the smaller one slinks away. Perhaps I ought to have watched this as a learning experience, rather than for cheap thrills, but where's the fun in that?

Tape #3, "Courting," relies heavily on birds, the most bizarre of which is the Australian bowerbird. The males build "display cases" to show off objects they collect: flowers, feathers from other birds, shells, whatever they find that is brightly colored. There are 18 species of bowerbirds, "each with a different style of architecture and different tastes in ornaments." The female birds tour these museums to chose their lovers.

Females of other species use different criteria. Attenborough says, "Some males need to offer special attractions," as the camera focuses in on salamander dung. After a meal of termites, the salamander pellet is smooth. Salamanders who eat ants, which are bitter and nasty, have lumpy dung. The female noses both droppings, then shacks up with the termite-eater. As mentioned above, moose also develop a fascination with excrement during the mating season. I never saw anything like that on "Wild Kingdom."

"The Trials of Life" series progresses through "Continuing the Line" (yes, animal sex), "Arriving" (birth), "Growing Up," and "Finding the Way" (animal navigation). "Hunting and Escaping" provides the most continuous bang for the buck. At $9.99 for 60 minutes, it's both the cheapest tape and the longest. The others cost $19.99 for 50 minutes. They arrive every six weeks or so, and once they're in your house, it's easier to mail the check than return them. Luckily, there is fascinating and unbelievable stuff on each tape.

"The Trials of Life" are distributed by Time-Life Video, 777 Duke St., Alexandria, VA 22314 or call 1-800-228-3308. Thanks to Jeff & Blair for lending the snuff tapes.

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