Movies are powerful. They can have considerable influence over our thoughts, opinions, and behavior. In many ways, modern society is shaped by popular media. So what does that mean for wildlife? What happens when traditionally wild animals play important roles in such influential stories as Harry Potter or Black Panther? This week, we look at how Hollywood has affected public perceptions of 6 different kinds of animals – for better or for worse.
Perhaps the best known example of how Hollywood affects wildlife is Steven Spielberg’s classic thriller Jaws, in which a giant great white shark kills beachgoers and must be destroyed. Jaws invented the concept of the summer blockbuster, inspired dozens of mimics and spinoffs, and is one of the best known movies of all time – which means that a lot of people have seen sharks villainized on the big screen. Following Jaws’ release in 1975, shark fishing became extremely popular and thousands of sharks (and not just great whites) were killed for sport. News media sensationalized shark attacks, which are actually an extremely rare occurrence. Now, sharks are starting to gain sympathy, but their populations are still severely decimated. As sharks are top predators that help control ocean food webs, this decline has had some severe impacts on marine biodiversity.
Throughout the Harry Potter films (and books), witches and wizards use owls to send all their post. This is all well and good for the magical community who presumably use magically enhanced birds, but in the real world, the demand for pet owls (particularly Snowy owls like Harry’s bird Hedwig) increased in the wake of the first Harry Potter film. Owls are raptors, or birds of prey, meaning that they are adapted for hunting and eating small animals like mice. It also means that they do NOT make good pets. Once people realized the consequences of hosting (admittedly cute) murder birds in their houses, owls were abandoned left, right, and center. The Indian wildlife group TRAFFIC-India partially blamed the Harry Potter franchise for threats to India’s native owl species, and bird sanctuaries across the UK took in dozens of abandoned owls.
Tropical fish and coral reefs
In Pixar’s Finding Nemo, father clownfish Marlin seeks out his captured son Nemo with the help of Dory, a charmingly forgetful blue tang. You would think that this heartwarming tale of fish trying to reach freedom would teach us to leave marine life alone, but many people – particularly kids – took home the opposite message. As with owls, demand for pet tropical fish, especially clownfish and blue tangs, skyrocketed. Demand for the fish and other ocean creatures threatened the coral reefs of Vanuatu. Saltwater fish require a lot of maintenance, so again, the pets were often turned loose, usually into environments where they didn’t belong. In some areas around Florida, for example, native marine life has been shouldered out by non-native species that were set loose after people couldn’t be bothered with it anymore.
Bears and Wolves
In the real world, bears and wolves are similarly dangerous – neither should be approached, fed, or harassed if you want to stay in one piece. Both also play important ecological roles in their habitats. But in the movies, especially kids’ movies, there’s a big difference between them. According to Hollywood, bears are good and wolves are bad. This comes up a lot in classic Disney movies: think about the wolves that attack Belle and her father in Beauty and the Beast, as opposed to the friendly Baloo from The Jungle Book. Or in Disney’s take on Robin Hood, where the Little John is a bear, but the Sheriff of Nottingham is a wolf. This happens in other famous works too, like the Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit. This trend has led to two serious misunderstandings of wildlife.
1. People don’t take bears seriously, which is dangerous for both people and bears.
2. People regard wolves as evil, menacing beasts and try to kill them as they see fit, when wolves are actually crucial top predators that help balance ecosystems.
Warning: This entry contains spoilers from Black Panther.
Marvel’s biggest and (arguably) best film is Black Panther, released this past February. As T’Challa and his cousin Erik Killmonger battle for the throne of Wakanda towards the end of the film, another more personal battle is taking place. Okoye, the general of the Dora Milaje (an all-female elite fighting force) is on T’Challa’s side, but her partner W’Kabi supports Killmonger’s plan to arm the oppressed around the world with Wakandan weapons. During the final battle, W’Kabi uses his trained war rhinos to spread chaos, and charges down the warrior M'Baku. But Okoye steps in front of him, and the rhino recognizes “mom”, stops in its tracks, and licks her face. She takes charge of the situation, which helps turn the tide of the battle in favor of T’Challa. It’s not clear yet whether Black Panther’s massive success has helped rhino conservation efforts, but some folks at Disney are certainly trying! Hopefully other big movies like this will continue use their power to help wildlife in the future.