Kenya: Filmmakers, Conservationists Clash Over Training of Wild Animals for the Screen

by Apr 15, 2011Wildlife News

A movie on the life of Kenya’s world renowned wildlife conservationist Daphne Sheddrick has already encountered unexpected challenge over proposed use of trained animals in the screen role.

Veteran film agent Jenny Pont who handled the two Oscar award-winning movies Nowhere in Africa and In a Better World this year told the Star that Sheddrick is opposed to trained animals being used in her story because she objects to the concept of using animals in ways outside their normal life.”It has put the project in a balance and all depends on whether either side cedes who will play the characters of her animals,” said Jenny Pont.

But director Bob Nyanja (Rugged Priest) says that with his experience, working with untrained animal is a nightmare that film directors would rather avoid. “I have had occasion to work with both trained and untrained animals and it’s a horror dealing with animals that are not trained to take instructions for the camera,” said Nyanja.

The Sheddrick project has rekindled one of the great debates in Kenya filming circles where filmmakers and conservationists remain divided over the concept of allowing training of some animals for screen.

Presently, the film industry is bound by a government restriction that prohibits training of animals and prescribes that animals remain free of human intrusion. This point was enforced by Kenya Wildlife Services communication manager Ngugi Gecaga who ruled out any possibility of changing that policy.”We have scientific evidence that it puts animals to enormous stress because they are required to do functions that are not natural to them and we think it is cruel and a violation of their rights,” he said.

On his part, managing director BlueSky Films Jim Shamoon was cautious but would like to see more discussion and consensus on the matter.”We appreciate the government policy that Kenya allows wildlife existence in their natural form but I think the debate should be left open,” said Shamoon. He felt that such training may promote greater appreciation of wildlife through the social interaction through movies.

Previously, overseas filmmakers using trained animals in their productions made in Kenya have had to import them from either Zimbabwe or South Africa which has had a long tradition of training wildlife for movie roles.

But a growing view is that Kenya being world renowned for game and also as a film location ought to allow controlled training of some animals to serve the requirement for trained animals in certain movies.

Among famous films shot in Kenya that have used imported animals include Sheena Queen of the Jungle, and the George Adamson movie To Walk with the Lions which was filmed in Shaba in the late 1990s. Both used imported animals for their roles which is an enormous cost which would have been avoided had they been sourced locally.

In other cases Kenyan stories with major animal roles – The Ghost and Darkness based on the two famous man eaters of Tsavo and the film Duma based on the book How it was like with Dooms by Xan Hopcraft about his experience with a cheetah pet – were both shot in South Africa.

More recently, BlueSky Film had to go to South Africa to film a segment of a television commercial for the Spanish alcoholic beverage San Miguel where a tribe of lions is shown chasing Ostriches in the wild. “We shot the scene on the Ostriches in Kenya but required trained lions for the insert to complete the scene and had to use South Africa,” said Shamoon. He said that on the average, the cost of maintaining a trained lion in Kenya is $500 (Sh42,500) per day.

Ordinarily, celebrity animals are accorded star life with special diets that includes food, shampoos, special bottled water and general lifestyle that befits their star status.

The imported animals have to be accompanied by a professional handler and other considerations that vary from country to country which may complicate and escalate the acquisition process overall production budget.

The safety of the animals is paramount and they have to be flown in special cages to shield them from the risk of being attacked by wild animals during filming in the parks. “We have had cases when tame lions were attacked by the wild predators,” said Jenny Pont.

On two occasions that trained animals have been brought into the country, Hollywood-based Kenyan animal handler Jules Sylvester (brother to Roger Sylvester of Bunson Travels) has been hired as handler to co-ordinate them for screen. He also handles a variety of other species.

He started out as a cleaner of the snake pits at the Nairobi Snake Park in the 1970s before but moved to Harare Snake Park to pursue prospects of screen roles.

But one day he decided to entertain a group of tourists by kissing the top of the raised head of a spitting cobra and in shock reaction, one of the visitors fainted and sustained serious injuries. The incident offended the management who fired him and Sylvester left for the US in search of work prospects and has settled down well as a handler of animals, reptiles and creepy creatures on movies.

There is also general phobia of animals on screen sets and in his role as George Adamson, the late Sir Richard Harris nearly quit his role for fear of acting with lions saying: “I didn’t want to become some lions breakfast in Kenya”.

In an earlier interview, Sylvester offered insights to basic individual characteristics that determine handling of animals on the locations; he likened the lion to human beings who expect reward for every role which means a chunk of meat every time it takes instruction. Sylvester rates giraffes the most difficult to work with due to low intellect. “They are thick as a brick,” he asserts.

On spiders, he said that the basic method to get them moving to a certain direction is to blow from the rear and the creature will move as if to get away from the irritation.

The famous wildlife photographer describes elephants as highly emotional animals who are quick to succumb to stress especially when they sense intrusions.

The case by proponents of the training is that it would open career opportunities for Kenyans.

So far, screen portrayal of Kenya wildlife has been restricted to documentaries most notably the Big Cats Diary, a popular reality show by BBC and hundreds of others for overseas nature-based television channels.

But film director Nyanja argues that allowing training would make the country attractive for filmmaking – both local and foreign – and also develop a lucrative way of managing the country’s wildlife resource.”Most directors like a one shop situation where they do not have to incur added cost of air freighting animals and unforeseen inconveniences that may prop up,” Nyanja said, “If we can cage them as done at the animal orphanage then really we can also decide to choose a limited number for training”. But while protective of animal rights, Pont argues that use of trained animals for screen is a necessary evil that the world has to live with.

However, she asserts that the demand so far may not justify the high cost of animal training but adds higher demand would necessitate consideration. “On the average I get about two requests for trained animals each year which is not enough to warrant the high cost of training and upkeep,” she said. She is aware of issues that complicate external sourcing and such animals are always readily available.

In an earlier project she was required to provide a monkey but was unable to get one from all possible sources in the world due to a ban on movement of primates. Initially Kenya was listed an Ebola risk zone and any primate that was brought here would have had to be put on quarantine for four months upon return to its country of origin which would have meant additional cost. “There is also a general view among conservationists that monkeys have been over-exploited and most countries tend to be protective about them and will not allow importation for movie roles,” said Pont.

Still, the overriding view by filmmakers is that Kenya’s real attraction is that it reflects Africa in the movies and wildlife is an integral part of Africa and the character of the country.”We can make it more exciting to film here by developing this vital resource,” says Nyanja.