Sunday, February 6, 2011

CBC's Nature Of Things: Back To Its Roots?

A friend seemed surprised when I cut short a telephone conversation by saying I had to get back to watching a TV documentary about ferrets.
Once upon a time this would not have been so unusual.
When I started out as TV critic of The Spectator way back in 1970 CBC-TV was awash in nature series celebrating the wonders of this great country.
Let's see there were the monthly specials of naturalists John and Janet Foster --I vividly remember one on the rain forest of Queen Charlotte Islands.
And tugging and pressing against Nature Of Things there was that great CBC rival This Land which eventually got killed off for lack of funds.
That only leaves Nature Of Things and it must cram in all of science into its 13-week yearly schedule.
I'm not sure what I expected to find with the ferret profile, Return Of The Prairie Bandit which premieres on CBC-TV Thursday Feb. 10 at 8 p.m. but the hour is jam packed with great shots and a belief this Canadian ferret deserves to survive back in its native prairie habitat.
Filmmaker Kenton Vaughan took a real gamble in focusing on the black-footed ferret, the only ferret native to North America.
This ferret unlike the store bought European varieties is almost wholly noctural and difficult to film.
It was long thought to be extinct --the last sighting in Canada was in 1937.
This particular ferret became a victim of evolution: for centuries it lived in the North American grassland and by a trick of evolution gradually fixated on prairie dogs who once numbered over a billion before the introduction of European settlers.
The early settlers on both sides of the 49th parallel tried to exterminate prairie dogs because they were simply a nuisance. When the prairie dogs disappeared so did the ferrets who could not switch diets after centuries of single source dependency.
"I'm a Saskatchewan farm boy originally," says Vaughan. "I'd always wanted to do something on Grasslands National Park." When he learned black-footed ferrets were going to be reintroduced he decided to try and film this experiment.
The hour would not have worked before the advent of night vision photography.
We travel along with biologist Travis Livieri as he unleashes 19 females and 15 males back into reconstituted prairie dog colonies. The ferrets obligingly scatter down abandoned prairie dog colonies.
And Vaughan had to return the next season to check and see how many survived a cruel winter or other predators like wolves and Coyotes who would go after them.
These ferrets were zoo bred and teaching them the ways of the wild meant long sessions at "ferret boot camp" where they were re-taught how to kill prairie dogs --it's one of the film's highlights.
Another great shot: on the lone prairie a prairie dog happens upon a ferret during daylight hours and has the better of the encounter --prairie dogs are bigger and the only way ferrets can kill them is at night --as the prairie dogs sleep in their tunnels the ferret pounces for the kill by strangling them with vicious bites to the neck.
The hero of all this is Livieri who is seen trudging through the night searching for signs of the ferrets he had unleashed the season before --his sighting of three ferret kits is one happy ending to this story. But another tragedy unfolds as one colony of prairie dogs is infected and destroyed by flea-bearing plague.
Vaughan skillfully gets us emotionally involved in this true life story of survival. It took him a year to film the beginning and the outcome and it was surely worth the time and effort.
Nature shows on CBC are fighting a similar struggle just to survive. Return Of The Prairie Bandit is the kind of venture fully justifying CBC's mandate.
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

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