DR. DOOLITTLE TAKES AN ENVIRONMENTAL STAND

by Whit Gibbons

January 6, 2002


It goes without saying that I know nothing about being a movie critic, although I know which movies I like and don't. I hope it would also be assumed that Dr. Doolittle 2 would not be my first choice of a movie to start with in 2002. Nonetheless, I ended up watching Eddie Murphy in his "talk to the animals" persona last week. To my surprise, the theme was the environment, so I paid closer attention than I might have otherwise.

Without being an ecologist, a movie critic might not have picked up on a few problems that could have been fixed easily by the producers had they consulted a biologist. For example, Dr. Doolittle refers to possums as rodents. They are of course marsupials, which is a completely different group of animals. In fact, possums are more closely related to kangaroos than to rats and mice. I was fascinated to find that it bothered me a bit that the movie got such a straightforward biological fact wrong but that I was quite comfortable with the idea that a possum sat in a car seat talking to Eddie Murphy. But then again, we all know that animals talk; most people just can't understand what they are saying. So the talking creatures were okay.

But while I'm on the issue of mistakes, my herpetologist friends would not approve if I did not also point out the unforgivable error of Dr. Doolittle's bringing back a chameleon from Mexico. Chameleons belonging to the family that camouflage themselves by changing color are from Africa and Madagascar, southern Europe, and Asia; none are native to the western hemisphere. Again, however, it seemed fine to me that the little lizard jabbered away, even if he did have a Mexican accent.

Another point that seemed okay (remember, I am not a movie critic) is that the endangered species in the movie was identified as a Pacific western bear. I have never heard of a species of West Coast bear with this name; grizzlies, black bears, and Alaskan brown bears are the only U.S. species, although regional races are sometimes given specific names. But a talking bear named Archie seemed perfectly reasonable, and because an endangered species was needed for the plot, calling Archie a Pacific western bear also seemed fine to me. (I feel certain your enjoyment of the movie will not be spoiled if I mention that Archie at one point refers to himself as a "pander" bear because he is an entertainer who tries to attract audiences with his act.)

Archie represents a captive raised bear that is to be introduced into the wild to mate with the last remaining Pacific western bear, a female. The need has arisen because a timber company is planning to clear-cut thousands of acres of western forest, a tree-cutting-villain portrayal that the paper products industry would presumably view as grossly overstated. The talking animals have of course approached Dr. Doolittle to intervene.

One issue raised is whether captive animals can be used for repopulating a species in the wild. As Archie points out, if he wanted to eat a fish, he would go to a Red Lobster. Although the point was not dealt with in depth in the movie, several animal species have been propagated in captivity and then successfully introduced into wild populations. California condors, gray wolves, and black-footed ferrets are but a few. One point that is stated but not discussed at length is that the strength of having an endangered species in a region is that it can protect all species because habitat is the issue. If audiences who watch this movie grasp this one point, it will be worth their sitting through it. The Endangered Species Act is our most powerful protector of habitats across the United States. We need to keep it intact, unless opponents would prefer to develop an Endangered Habitat Act to really protect our natural environments.

Meanwhile, I recommend this movie to any ecologists who have too much time on their hands. Despite the movie's occasional lapse in biological accuracy, the portrayal of the talking animals is . . . quite believable.



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