This is a disingenuous documentary that has a noble cause: it’s nominally about the sixth mass extinction threatening Earth’s biodiversity. It shoots itself in the foot, though, by doubling up as a polemic in favour of zoos, and their part in directing species conservation. (It is produced by animal welfare charity American Humane.) Many of the points it makes, sagely narrated by Helen Mirren, are impossible to argue with, and important correctives amid current heated questioning about whether zoos should exist at all. But they’re made in such a one-sided and nakedly emotive way that Escape from Extinction borders on propaganda.
An initial statistics blitzkrieg leaves us in no doubt about the scale of the present crisis: one-eighth of the planet’s 8 million species are in danger of disappearing. But the protesters lined up outside zoo gates are often misguided and misinformed, the film’s many conservation interviewees argue. Take the case of the much-maligned SeaWorld: it provides invaluable cetacean research not possible in the wild, and freeing orcas raised in captivity is usually not to the benefit of the animals. Elsewhere, the film racks up numerous examples of where zoos are not only sites of learning but havens for repopulating species that wouldn’t otherwise have survived: the grey wolf, the black-footed ferret, the whooping crane, the kakapo.
Fair enough. But Escape from Extinction is so hellbent on forcing its case, it feels hard to trust. It doesn’t engage on what conditions “accredited zoos” must meet, or enter into discussion with animal rights activists with legitimate concerns about the lives of animals in captivity (a word the film pettily quibbles with). In a segment about sharks, it criticises their demonising portrayal in films such as Jaws and TV shows such as Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, then uses the same sensationalist editing to tar zoo protesters (with non-stop orchestral cheerleading for any zoo success story). Possible mass extinction may well justify the zoos-as-arks argument, but this means broaching complex questions about man’s relationship with nature that this film does not have time to answer. Already in the grip of this crisis, animals – and us – deserve better than this partial survey.
Escape from Extinction is in cinemas from 17 September.