I am not a scientist, but I play one on the page. Because my own background is so very not scientific, I needed a lot of research and experiences in order to write (authentically) the character of Deb Gardner in My Last Continent, including traveling to Antarctica and witnessing the continent through the eyes of the many naturalists on our expedition, and also spending time volunteering with penguin researchers at the Punta Tombo colony in Argentina. One of the first — and most interesting, important, and devastating — things I learned is that we humans do not intervene when we see wildlife in trouble. It is, after all, the wild.
This is true whether you’re a filmmaker, a naturalist guide, or a researcher: Whatever you observe, you have to simply observe, no matter how heartbreaking it is. But sometimes people find it impossible not to intervene, like these BBC documentary filmmakers who decided to help save emperor penguin chicks as several penguin parents and their chicks became separated when the chicks couldn’t follow them up a steep slope. The crew “‘opted to intervene passively,’ said the show’s director, Will Lawson.” They created a ramp in the ice that the chicks ended up using to climb up to safety.
Was it appropriate or ethical — or both, or neither? As for myself, I don’t think I could stand to watch baby penguin chicks die if I had a chance to save them … which is one of many reasons I’m not a scientist or a documentary filmmaker — because that is precisely what they are supposed to do. To do otherwise is dangerous to both the humans as well as to the animals, often in ways that may not be immediately evident. While in this particular case, penguins’ lives were saved with no apparent harm, the public opinion is divided on whether taking action was appropriate: This article highlights the positive reaction to the film crew’s rescue efforts, while this headline reads, “Filmmakers Criticised For Intervening with Trapped Penguins in Antarctica.”
As a traveler, I’ve seen things in nature that aren’t fun to watch but that are, in fact, natural (one animal devouring another, for example); certainly it’s unethical to get in the way of someone’s meal, no matter how brutal it is to witness. Likewise, scientists and naturalists have to witness such incidents, and many others, without interfering. It is a hard concept to get around, even in fiction. In a chapter of My Last Continent, the character Keller describes having to witness a terrible scene involving an animal in Antarctica. He tells Deb, when he recounts the episode, “I’m still getting used to not intervening.” Her reply: “I’m not sure that feeling ever leaves you.”
As for the BBC film crew, I can’t fault them one bit for saving these penguins (in fact, this video is wonderful to see). However, the fact that they did sets a precedent that could be very dangerous if others decide that intervening is okay, especially if it’s in different, more direct ways. The wild is wild for a reason, and there is still so much we don’t understand. We’ve already interfered with so much in nature, creating so much imbalance, that having this last respect for wildlife, as hard as it is, needs to remain in place.