Paws for thought: a lion, lazing in the sun in Etosha National Park, Namibia (Photo by Anne Goodenough).

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Nature documentaries open up the natural world to a global audience, allowing people to see spectacular wildlife without leaving their homes. These documentaries are entertaining, and can also inform viewers about the biology and conservation of the species that appear. A common theme, especially recently, is the portrayal of animals and their behaviour as though they have similar minds, motivations and personalities as people. This is called anthropomorphism. False jeopardy, where perfectly normal situations in animals’ lives are presented as though they are unusual and far more dangerous than they really are, is commonly used to create suspense. We argue that this portrayal, while entertaining, risks the propagation of misconceptions about nature and conservation. We illustrate our point by analysing the popular BBC Natural History series Dynasties. Episodes showcasing chimps, lions, African wild dogs and tigers, were styled very much like mini soap-operas. Anthropomorphism, false jeopardy, and narratives surrounding the maintenance of “dynasties” were conspicuous, but have no scientific basis, and can, we suggest, be problematical for how people understand the purpose of conservation. Conservation depends to very much on public support and should be fostered by factual representation. Portraying animals as though they are people, and their lives as if they are soap-operas, is not helping to achieve that.