Witnessing The Cruelty of Nature in the Wild
Witnessing The Cruelty of Nature in the Wild
By Tom Synnatzchke  

For wildlife filmmakers, there’s no substitute for time in the field. To get the best footage, we have to spend many days, weeks and months on location observing the animals we’re trying to film. If we’re lucky, we get to witness nature in its many forms: intimate, funny, spectacular, dangerous, and raw. While we may get to see some amazing sights during our time filming, more often than not it’s the difficult scenes that leave a lasting impression on us.

As part of the crew for Ghosts of the Arctic, we spent a lot of time around wolves on Ellesmere Island. We witnessed scenes that we could never have predicted, and two events in particular affected us deeply. 

A Haunting and Eerie Howl That I’ll Never Forget

The first event was when a rival pack raided the den where we were filming. We knew that conflicts between packs were common, but it was still difficult to witness in person. As the rival pack approached, the female wolf tried to lead the others away from her den. For a while it looked like she would succeed in drawing them away. Unfortunately, the rival wolves discovered her den and killed her pups. During the raid, the female wolf howled over and over from a distant ridge – a haunting and eerie howl that I’ll never forget. We were all saddened by her loss. Our director was on the verge of tears.

The second event that was difficult for the team occurred at another den. We had been filming there for a month, and had come to know the pack members quite well. There were two females caring for the pups: Snow White and Blackspot. We were excited because this behaviour was something that had never been filmed before. One day, however, we noticed that Blackspot was seriously ill. She could barely walk or stand, and it was clear that she didn’t have long to live. She died in the den, with her body blocking the entrance. Unable to go into the den, and with no food in the area, Snow White took the pups and left. 

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Blackspot passed away shortly after this scene was filmed.

It was a terrible turn of events – not only because of Blackspot’s death, but also because the pups were very young to be leaving the den. Where was Snow White taking them? Would the pups survive? This was the absolute lowest point of our shoot, and our morale hit rock-bottom. It’s at such times that exhaustion catches up with you and tension puts a heavy strain on the team. In the end, Snow White made the right decision and took her pups to a place where there was more food.

Rules Against Intervention

I’ve been asked before if there’s anything that we could do to help the animals we film. Isn’t there some way we could intervene? As much as we’d like to get involved, the fact is that there are very clear rules and guidelines around what we’re allowed to do as wildlife filmmakers. We can watch from a distance, but we cannot interfere.

As wildlife filmmakers, we have a deep love for animals and nature. When we visit such pristine environments, it’s important to have a “leave no trace” philosophy — an approach that applies not only to how we interact with the physical environment, but also to how we interact with the creatures that live there. Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to keep our influence to an absolute minimum, even if we can’t help but be moved by the wonders that we see.