TV review: Nature's Miracle Babies

Gary Day sees parallels between the 19th-century novel and anthropomorphic tales of rare animals

September 8, 2011



Credit: Miles Cole


Even nature programmes are structured like soap operas. Nature's Miracle Babies (BBC One, Sunday 4 September, 6.30pm) no sooner introduces us to one animal's dilemma than we are presented with another's. The story moves back and forth between several creatures in much the same way that it does between the characters in EastEnders or Coronation Street.

The convention probably derives from the 19th-century novel, with its many different narrative strands. They were a way of generating suspense but they also reflected the complexity of modern society, of how one life was intertwined with many others. What's more, these different narratives were organised into hierarchies that mirrored the class divisions of Victorian Britain.

I could go on, but won't. It's just too tedious and makes me nostalgic for the Aristotelian unities. Besides, tracing how the novelistic convention of multiple narratives influences the presentation of the news and the implications that has for our understanding of the world, isn't half as much fun as watching animals and their cute, fluffy ways.

And before you scoff, just remember that we are animals too. Pied tamarin monkeys are primates, "just like you and I" says presenter Martin Hughes-Games. His name is rather a mouthful and the last part of it in particular seems faintly inappropriate for a man who wants to conserve animals not kill them. Being "like us" means that tamarins are "intelligent, sociable" and I think he said "beautiful" too, a remark that suggests that Martin knows more about tamarins than he does about humans.

Pied tamarins are native to Brazil but the destruction of their habitat means that they could soon be extinct. Here is another link with humans, well academics anyway. At least some people are prepared to fight for the preservation of the tamarin, the giant panda and the Indian rhino, the species featured in this programme, but who is going to fight to save philosophy lecturers? Who is going to make historians part of a captive breeding programme?

Martin displayed his own social skills with the aplomb of a peacock when he met Ken, who looks after Lun Lun, a female panda at Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Georgia. "You're big," said Martin. "Sorry," said Ken. Martin informed us that it was "Ken's mission to get Lun Lun pregnant", which is probably carrying the close relationship between humans and animals a bit too far. We hardly had time to recover from the nature of Ken's mission before we were transported to Whipsnade Zoo in the UK to meet Behin, an Indian rhino.

Behin was with calf and is monitored night and day by CCTV, so there's another link between animals and us humans. Veronica, her keeper, told us that Behin is very "friendly". We saw Behin cracking jokes with a couple of Japanese tourists. She is also very "curious". We saw her reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. Behin would have liked to have spoken to us herself, but she was too busy doing a sponsored walk round and round her small compound to raise money for humans afflicted with anthropomorphism.

Just as we were getting involved in Behin's life, the scene switched to Eulalia, a pied tamarin with the sort of family background you normally find only in Greek tragedy or on The Jeremy Kyle Show. She had been abused as a baby and had attacked her own offspring, killing one and seriously injuring another. A vet operated. Martin was shown how to give milk to the babies. Would they be all right? We would have to wait to find out, for now it was back to Lun Lun.

Female pandas are "receptive" for only two days a year. Was she ready? If she was, she wasn't saying. Ken had to examine her droppings to find out if she was in the mood. It turns out she was and so Yang Yang was brought in from the cage next door. This was his moment. But he fluffed it. You had to feel for him. Male pandas don't get much opportunity to practise their seduction technique. "Something else people don't understand", said Yang Yang in an interview later, "is that we blokes can't be expected to perform just because herself has decided that now's the time. See these black marks round my eyes? Stress, that is. Stress. Got any bamboo?"

Meanwhile, back at Whipsnade...oh, enough already. Every story has a happy ending, OK? Behin gave birth, the baby tamarins were adopted and even Lun Lun became a mum mum. The aim is to release the creatures back into the wild, although the rate at which forests are being chopped down and concreted over makes that an unlikely outcome. Still, look on the bright side. As long as we put animals behind bars we can pretend that we're free. What they feel about it is another matter.

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