The story behind The Condor’s Shadow
The journey that began with discovery work for a documentary film on the California condor began in 2010. I was drawn to the condor story out of a desire to explore an environmental success. With the relentless pounding of the climate change doom drum we all are subjected to each and every day I felt there would be value in telling a hopeful environmental story. One that would reaffirm our ability to address the environmental issues ahead and revealing of the commitment required to right an environmental wrong. Based in Santa Barbara California, I had proximity to the origins of quite a number of interesting environmental stories. Some were broader in scope and others more on the conservation end of the spectrum. Having spent many days in Southern California wilderness areas I had a natural affinity for the later. I felt like a film on preservation of a natural resource would fit my worldview and would unfold organically.
Just forty miles from my front door are the last vestiges of habitat for the California condor. I had hiked and fished that rugged backcountry terrain over the years. The Dick Smith Wilderness and the Sespe and Sisquoc condor sanctuaries are all areas within an hour or two of my home that have been preserved for the benefit of the California condor. California condors have been reintroduced in these areas beginning in 1992. The iconic status of the species added a lot of gravity to the story and the endangered species recovery effort was well known. That awareness would be foundational to the documentary storyline. The story had elements of success, was highly visual and both the birds and the people were accessible for filming. With those components in alignment I moved ahead.
Based in Ventura California, the condor recovery program is run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The very first program to be funded and executed after the passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the program has a rich and varied history with its share of controversy. So as my collaborators Jessica McLoughlin and Ethan Turpin plied the modern day waters of the condor recovery program and worked on access to the individuals that had lived this story for over thirty years it began to gel what the film was to be.
The elements that would make for a compelling narrative in the condor recovery story are really very human. The condor has been around for many thousands if not millions of years. Evolution was not driving the bird to its demise. The dilemma of the condor is entirely human in origin. I could see that the story of the condor was one about rectifying the unintended consequences of human preferences. So the story that would become The Condor’s Shadow was really to be about the challenge of rebuilding a self-sustaining population of this impressively huge scavenger bird. Certainly this was to be a story of endangered species recovery. Anyway you look at this it’s a remarkable achievement that the 22 California condors remaining on earth in 1982 could be bred into 400+ today. Certainly that’s a win. But while filming an interview with Joseph Brandt, the lead field biologist for the Southern California program, he reflected upon what others have said about the three-decade-long commitment to recover the species.
“People say it’s just a bird. It’s a dinosaur. It should have been extinct a long time ago…”
Joseph is an interesting guy. He a bit of a dichotomy when you meet him, with blond dreadlocks that extend down his back and the tan and brown uniform of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At 6’6” he’s physically imposing while at the same time being gregarious and genuine. I had hopes early on that he would become the main character in The Condor’s Shadow. A character-based documentary is generally more engaging than a topic-based film. Initially he was receptive but not overly encouraging to the concept of being the focus of the story. Clearly, a vérité film crew following him around would add yet another distraction to an already tough job. But having worked with condors on and off for nearly a decade he was well aware of one key potential benefit from a film on the program: Broader public awareness. Thirty years after the rescue effort commenced, California condors are being reintroduced into an environment that contains the same threats that brought the bird to the edge of extinction in the 1980’s. Raising awareness of the issues would be good for the condor.
For Joseph to be in the position he was in, doing the physically demanding and gritty work of a field biologist there had to be passion. Driving that passion there needed to be a philosophical commitment that the goal being pursued deserves to be achieved.
In our interview for the film Joseph’s rejoinder to the critics was practiced but sincere:
“The condor is just a bird in the same way the Grand Canyon is just a canyon. The condor is a symbol of American conservation in a lot of respects and it serves us all to protect that resource.”
At the time his comeback seemed a bit contrived and perhaps over-stated. But as the film production progressed and my appreciation for the conservation effort gained depth, the spirit behind Joseph’s sentiment began to resonate. It still resonates with me today.
In truth the condor really is just a bird. But really, is that not enough? The responsibility for the condor’s near-demise is our own. There is nothing about the bird’s dilemma that is not human induced. The responsibility for pulling it back from the brink is ours as well.
The good news is that we’ve made progress. Ultimately, as it turns out, the number one threat to the bird’s continuing survival is spent lead ammunition. It’s a fact that was suspected in the 1980’s and studied extensively but not clearly articulated until Myra Finkelstein’s peer-reviewed study was published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012. Her work demonstrated with a high degree of certainty that if lead continues to occur in the scavenged food sources of the California condor the species will forever be conservation program dependent. All things being equal, remove the lead and the condor will thrive.
Despite active resistance by the powerful gun industry lobby, legislation to control the introduction of lead ammunition into the environment through any hunting activity has become law in California. This treads into a terrain of stiff cultural resistance that will take years to overcome but in the end I’m optimistic that reason will prevail.
So the California condor may well be “ just a bird “ but the condor is a survivor in an age when species are disappearing at an alarming rate. The recovery of this species demonstrates what can be done by those who appreciate the intrinsic value of “…it’s just a bird.” and respond the obligation that this creates.
Ultimately, the value of The Condor’s Shadow lies in the portrayal of that response by Joseph Brandt and dozens of others who play a role in the condor’s recovery with passion and recognition of the value of all species on earth. It’s an emotionally evocative story and one with several dimensions we can learn from. For the bird-lover, the aspiring wildlife biologist, the conservationist and those with a concern for endangered species there is a lot here to appreciate. It’s a story that works on many different levels and always provokes conversation.
The Condor’s Shadow will broadcast on PBS affiliates in California beginning in December of 2013. DVD’s of the film are available for educational venues through Dark Hollow Films – www.darkhollowfilms.com