Wildlife TV

Learn interesting and funny plant and animal facts with videos and photos

Predator or Prey: Who do we cheer for?

on October 5, 2013
Cheetah family feeding from a freshly killed kudu in a South African safari.

A family of cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) feed from the fresh carcass of a kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), but should we feel happy that the cheetahs are getting fed or sad that a young kudu died?

Anyone interested in the natural world has undoubtedly watched their fair share of nature documentaries. Natural history film-making allows some of the most fascinating and spectacular images and scenes from nature to be transmitted to anyone in the world: someone might never see a lion (Panthera leo) in real life, but through documentaries, they can have a very emotional and intellectual connection with one. Hearing the soft narration of David Attenborough over spectacular images of animals, plants and landscapes is the way in which many people learn about the natural history of far away lands. However, there are psychological and evolutionary forces at work when we sit comfortably to watch the latest episode of our favourite nature documentary, forces that connect us with our remote ancestors in the wilds of Africa and elsewhere.

One very common feature of the nature documentary is the struggle between predator and prey; for example, a cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) locked in a life and death chase with an impala (Aepyceros melampus) or a crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) snatching a blue wildebeest (Connchaetes taurinus) as it desperately tried to cross a river during the Great Migration. These types of scene are common place almost every day all over the world as animals battle to survive in the wild; predators struggle to catch other animals so as to feed themselves and their families and prey must be ever vigilant and quick witted to avoid the jaws and claws of a hungry hunter. But something interesting happens inside us when we watch these violent scenes from nature; we find ourselves cheering the seemingly helpless prey animal as it races and fights to escape from certain death and we are saddened if the predator succeeds in its kill and begins its grizzly feeding. But why is this? Ultimately it’s because we humans, as primates and mammals, have spent most of our evolutionary past as prey to all manner of fearsome beasts and when it comes to picking a team, it’s much easier for us to side with prey over predator.

It was not so long ago (in geological time) that our ancestors roamed African savannahs in their small family groups and found themselves becoming an easy to catch food source for the big cats that we now go and see when on safari. Our ancestors would have lived in a great deal of fear and alertness that, say, a leopard (Panthera pardus) might kill their children during the night or that a crocodile might launch at them when they come to the river to drink or any number of horrific scenarios that make them the victim of powerful predators. They gained instincts that helped protect them, keep them alive and, ultimately, conquer the world, such as being fearful and observant of their surroundings and also to look our for one another. Even though as a species we are not particularly physically adapted at defending ourselves, we have a powerful brain that gave us the ability to make tools, solve problems and alter our environments and eventually we became super predators, however, this is a very recent development in our species’ history and the drives deep inside us still align us with the prey rather than the predator.

Natural history filmmakers can also play tricks with our perception; with some careful and purposeful editing, and the right music, the narrative can be changed and our sympathies can suddenly be put with the predator. A few images of some cute but hungry lion cubs is enough to get us cheering for the lionesses who have to bring back food to feed the youngsters. However, the filmmakers are appealing to the same instincts in us that come naturally when the emphasis is on the prey and not the predator; we want the best for the cute little cubs because we feel drawn to animals that are small, fluffy and helpless because they remind us of our own species’ history as well as our offspring.

Although we do seem to have a natural bias in favour of prey animals, it is important to remember that predators are not the bad guys, they have to feed themselves as well as their families and they have a vital role to play in their ecosystems. Wildlife documentaries do a fantastic job about educating us about the natural world and it’s interesting to reflect that not so long ago, we humans were much more a part of the natural world than we are today.

This wonderful sequence from the BBC’s Life of Mammals exemplifies the struggle between predators and prey, enjoy:

Much love,


If you liked this entry, make sure you check out our Dangerous Animals category.
Previous Dangerous Animals entries:
Living in the African Bush
When Herbivores Attack: Buffalo & Hippo
Adam Sandler attacked by cheetah in South Africa

One response to “Predator or Prey: Who do we cheer for?

  1. ocelot says:

    The prey

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