Last Night's Television - Inside Nature's Giants, Channel 4; Madonna and Mercy: What Really Happened? Channel 4

Unflappable tusk force

Reviewed,Brian Viner@vinerbrian
Tuesday 15 April 2014 05:04

It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before someone performed an autopsy of an elephant on the telly. Or before someone on the telly performed an autopsy of an elephant, I should say, before my colleague Guy Keleny skewers me for ambiguous syntax. Or should that be syntactical ambiguity? Whatever, a vet called Mark Evans promised us at the start of Inside Nature's Giants that we'd be getting "natural history as you've never seen it before", and of that there was no doubt whatever. Once you've seen the inner workings of an elephant's rectum, you have to ask yourself whether natural history has any mysteries left.

With fitting solemnity given the august surroundings – a lecture hall at the Royal Veterinary College – Evans presented the dead female elephant and referred to her death – from euthanasia, administered after severe arthritis had been diagnosed – as "tragic". Is the demise of an arthritic elephant tragic? I'm not sure, although Evans was plainly keen not to challenge the sensibilities of anyone who might have thought that the old girl's dignity was being somewhat compromised even in death as she was sliced open, the camera closing in on a fecal pellet that she hadn't quite got round to expelling.

Whatever, this spectacle produced an interesting discussion in our house, as my sons considered what other animals routinely produce fecal pellets. "Sheep," said the younger. "Rabbits," ventured the older. "Imogen on our girls' weekend away," said my wife, explaining that Imogen, to whom I have considerately given what I suppose might be called a poodonym, always struggles with her bowel movements on their annual jaunt to Dorset.

Pardon the levity, but I can't honestly claim that any of us watched Inside Nature's Giants with a straight face. This is not to say that we were laughing, just that our faces weren't straight, stretched as they were in expressions of slack-jawed, wide-eyed incredulity. If you've ever wondered what the large intestine of an elephant looks like laid out on the floor of a lecture theatre, and I can't pretend I ever had, then the answer is that it looks like most of the trans-Saharan pipeline. But then it needs to be big. Elephants eat their entire body weight every 20 days or so, and the cecum (pronounced secum), which links the large and small intestine and is where the elephant's diet of plants and trees gets fermented to extract the goodness, is at least the size of its near-namesake, the late, great Sir Harry, at his most rotund.

Delving with impressive enthusiasm into all this were a variety of experts, among them a woman who looked as though there was nowhere she would rather be than up to her elbows in an elephant's guts. She is a comparative anatomist rather aptly called Joy, and Evans seemed slightly in awe of her. "She's probably been inside more whales than anyone else on the planet," he assured us, and I knew there had to be a joke in there somewhere, but contented myself by imagining all the indignant challenges to this wild assertion from people watching at home. "Mum, she's supposed to have been inside more whales than anyone on the planet, but isn't that Mr Wigley from number 42?"

Anyway, Joy and her colleagues certainly achieved their objective on the pachyderm front, leaving us with increased admiration for one of evolution's more extraordinary creations. There are those who think that elephants belong in Africa, not zoos in Europe and America, but as an educational tool this one was worth her weight in textbooks.

The ethics of moving natives of Africa to the West was further explored by Jacques Peretti in Madonna and Mercy: What Really Happened?. This was a documentary examining the pop star's recent adoption of a four-year-old Malawian girl called Mercy, and Peretti, while disingenuously claiming that he was open to all kinds of conclusions, duly arrived at the one that he had clearly reached long before the cameras started rolling – namely that Madonna has no business swanning over to Malawi and plucking out cute-looking kids to take back to New York. He also suggested, while never managing to find much evidence, that the esoteric spiritual movement to which Madonna belongs, Kabbalah, lends a decidedly sinister dimension to her family-planning decisions.

Undoubtedly, there is a valid debate to be had about Madonna adopting children from Malawian orphanages, especially as it turned out that Mercy is not an orphan. But Peretti crafted a documentary to fit his own preconceptions. He also claimed that, when he got to Africa, a local journalist "reminded" him that Madonna had previously adopted another Malawian child, David Banda. If he needed reminding, then he should have been a little more thorough with his research. If he didn't, he shouldn't have insulted our intelligence by pretending he did. But in fairness, he uncovered plenty of material worth knowing, enabling the rest of us to be rather more objective before deciding whether Madonna has behaved monstrously, or admirably.

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