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Warning: before continuing with reading this blog, please note that there are serious spoilers ahead. And, in a shameless plug, if you haven’t seen ANIMAL (AKA the hottest new natural history series on Netflix) then go check it out before you read on.

Behind the scenes filming for ANIMAL with the wild dog pack on the move with their pups.

ANIMAL was filmed at the height of the Corona-chaos. International lockdowns became the norm and borders were sealed off to even the most adventurous of travellers. But nature doesn’t stop for anybody and while our lives ground to a halt, the lives of a little leopard, a proud lioness, and a playful pack of wild dog pups was just getting interesting. They weren’t the only stars of the show, however. Each episode (including cats, dogs, marsupials, and octopi) was complete with a star-studded narration team, including Rebel Wilson (think Brides Maids/Pitch Perfect), Rashida Jones (think The Office), Bryan Cranston (think Breaking Brad), and Pedro Pascal (think Narco’s/the Mandalorian).

Behind the scenes with the deadly roaming males of ANIMAL. Speaking of Pedro, I wonder how he felt that ANIMAL has had more streams than Narco’s in the past few weeks…!

First up were the big cats, including cloud, snow, and regular old leopard, mountain lions and regular lions, tigers and jaguars. The episode did a fascinating job at drawing parallels between these big cats, which have all found extraordinary niches across the world, from city-dwelling leopards in the metropolis of Mumbai to snow leopards living on the harshest, most extreme precipices of cliffs. 2020 was a great year for lions here in the Okavango, as the drought of 2019 created a bucket-load of very fat cats who were able to feast on the abundance of desperate, weakened prey. ANIMAL followed the life of a lioness as she navigated motherhood in this rich but unforgiving environment, as well as the father of her cubs, who was willing to give everything to protect them (even if that meant first dibs at dinner). Lions are the only big cat species known to have formed prides to cooperate in this way. However, the most fascinating part of the documentary for me was seeing the mountain lions exhibit similar behaviour. Now that their numbers are on the increase thanks to local conservation methods, perhaps our African lions won’t be such Big Cat outcasts after all.

Behind the scenes on ANIMAL with the lioness and her cubs.

Next, we met the leopardess and her little cub. Never letting size get in its way, the little leopard was seen stalking Africa’s largest and deadliest prey species: Cape Buffalo. Even the bravest of African predators will only tackle these beasts in prides, but stalking animals wildly outside his capacity is a good lesson in humility for the cub who must learn his own weaknesses in order to survive. The second critical lesson learnt was killing – something that unites all of the Big Cat species. A conveniently delivered maimed, but alive, adult warthog provided by his mother is just the ticket but, with his small jaws, nailing the cat’s classic choke-hold proves difficult and mum has to intervene. Leopards do not have the benefit of a pride to rely on. They are completely solitary other than when they are or have young and must learn to fend for themselves. This means two things. First, they, like the jaguars of the Pantanal, must avoid conflict at all costs. When you’re going solo, an injury that could stop you from feeding is just too great a risk to take. That is, of course, unless it’s in the name of love, in which case hesitancy goes out the window and the fight is on. Second, the cub must learn to feed for itself or risk starvation, as once he hits approximately 18-months old, mum will no longer be inviting him home for dinner.

The leopardess much teach her young cub how to hunt if he is ever going to learn to fend for himself.

Last, but certainly not least, we come to the Wild Dogs. There is nothing like seeing a pack of wild dog puppies emerging from their den for the first time, or witnessing the uncontained delight and excitement in the pack as they set off to hunt or return to the den with bellies full of food. Wild dogs have the benefit of the lion pride – if one kills, they all get to feed. The youngest get first dibs while the adults get to tuck in last. Even the sick and elderly are given places of priority at the dinner table. They divvy up tasks, including babysitting, den-cleaning, and hunting, but all take a role in bringing back some regurgitated meat for the pups and pup-sitters. However, finding that dinner is often hard. If you’ve ever been to a wild dog den then you’ll know that they are particularly pungent, and no prey is going to go within a mile of that. This means the hunting party has to set off pre-sunrise on long missions to find food for the growing pups, and often even have to hunt two times a day to keep everyone’s bellies full. Thankfully, their cooperative style and relentless energy make African wild dogs one of the most successful predators out there.

A wild dog searches for danger. One of their biggest threats is the resident lion pride, who would make a meal out of an adult or pup.

Every episode of ANIMAL brought together the most beautiful footage of the most incredible cat and dog species around the world, several of which I, at least, had never even heard of before. In the past, natural history series like this have received slack, as they seem to paint the picture that these species are thriving in our modern world which, of course, for most of them couldn’t be further from the truth. However, ANIMAL confronts these issues head-on, acknowledging the threats these unique animals face and sharing messages of hope and inspiration for their conservation. The most critical message is this: these animals need space. We’re lucky that here in the Okavango, a huge area has been protected for generations. It’s thanks to this, that we have the highest year-round density of prey and predator species on our doorstep, but not everywhere is nearly as lucky. Space is valuable and urbanization, farming, mining, and forestry are all competing with the voiceless animals for it. But there is something you can do. Tourism is the economic justification to preserve these lands. So, take a holiday - not such a hardship is it?

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. If you haven't already, check out ANIMAL on Netflix. You'll be surprised to find some tear-jerking moments in there.


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