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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

Give 'Tiger' Lion's Share of Attention

November 13, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

A whip-cracking lion tamer closed out Roseanne's syndicated talk show Wednesday, pushing these shamelessly exploited big cats to jump through a flaming hoop. Roseanne was mightily impressed with one of the lions.

"What is that, a tiger?" she asked.

"No, it's a lioness," she was told.

It was even money at that point whether the creatures with superior intelligence were outside the cage or inside. Talk about your circuses. At the very least, someone should have furnished Roseanne a box of Animal Crackers for research.

This is also "Big Bite" week for "Real TV," a syndicated series that gave viewers something to chew on Monday by showing a home video of an adult male lion (or tiger, if you're Roseanne) nearly ripping an arm from one of several men who had been foolish enough to crowd around and push against it in an apartment in Pakistan. Just why the lion was in this private residence in front of a camera with these idiots didn't concern "Real TV," for which "exciting" action, however aberrant, is all that matters.

Speaking of that, there was also Thursday's Fox special, "When Good Pets Go Bad," which, though unavailable for review, advertised pit bulls attacking sheriff's deputies, two horses fighting during a wedding, a monkey going berserk, an alligator chomping on its owner's head, an Orca turning on its rider and a "trained" elephant running amok.

Just how an alligator, a killer whale and an elephant qualify as pets is a secret that Fox would not be expected to divulge. Nor why anyone believes Orcas are on Earth to be ridden by humans for cheering audiences.

Not that it mattered in a week when--in regard to animals--bad television got worse.

But hooray for Sunday night, when TV's animal IQ rises strikingly.

The cheer is for the debut of "India: Land of the Tiger," a high-minded, stunningly gorgeous, six-hour "Nature" miniseries on PBS, which has done its share of animal documentaries that confuse chowtime in the wild with showtime.

Produced by Mike Birkhead, this one, too, doesn't shrink from flesh-tearing reality. As rival spotted stags strut and posture, the stripes in the tall grass behind them belong to a tiger. And you know what that means.

Stunning Camera Work, Passionate Narration

Yet happily, this series is infinitely more than the usual predators disemboweling prey, and in fact, is much more, too, than just tigers, which are surely prominent in a land that host-narrator Valmik Thapar assures us "was old long before Kipling's time." But prominent only as part of a wonderfully intoxicating ensemble of creatures that exist in their natural habitats.

The horn just above the water surface is connected to a submerged rhino. The legs churning beneath the water belong to elephants. The bird stalking and attacking a cobra is a peacock. The "living sunshades," spreading themselves to protect their nestlings from the searing heat, are adult storks.

In the Arabian Sea, meanwhile, a behemoth whale shark consumes plankton and tiny animals through a mouth large enough to swallow a human whole. From beneath the surface of the Indian Desert, dung-rolling beetles emerge in the cool of the night. Gibbons in Assam glide through treetops 130 feet above the forest floor, where elephants, wild boars and 12-foot king cobras travel in slow-motion. And monitor lizards lay their eggs in mounds where they've just devoured unguarded bird eggs so that when the adult birds return they will unknowingly incubate the lizards' eggs.

On and on goes this complex ballet of life and death, captured by breathtaking cinematography and celebrated in a narration from Thapar, a naturalist with a passion for animals and their interdependence with humans that he calls "the oneness of life."

Both humans and animals depend on the life-giving Ganges and other great rivers of Northern India, for example. The monsoons at once take life and nurture it--the floods that kill hundreds leaving behind precious silt that Thapar says becomes "a fertile haven" for wildlife. And the desert water hole where humans wash their clothes and drink here is also where animals drink.

High in the monastery-dotted Himalayas, Thapar shows us the elusive, almost mystical snow leopard in a haven for wildlife that he says reflects the Buddhist reverence for all things living, a mantra others would do well to copy. On the screen, too, are vegetarian human desert dwellers who oppose harming animals for any purpose. Thapar relates a story about one of their young men who was shot dead by the poachers he was chasing.

"Where else," he asks, "would someone give their life for a gazelle?"

If the beauty and odyssey of survival here are spectacular, though, so are the contradictions, a deep irony being the wide slaughter, poaching and exploitation of animals in a land where so many of them are said to be revered and deemed sacred. With friends like these. . . .

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