I am often meeting people, including myself, who insist that much the best programs on television are those dedicated to nature. Senior viewers in particular, their emotions sufficiently mature to find ''Dallas'' and ''Dynasty'' boring, their ears insufficiently tuned in to pop music, abhorring violence, and finding humor not nearly as funny as it used to be, turn with relief to films about animals.
That nature provides a bottomless well of interest cannot be denied: The life styles of sloths, anacondas, manatees, and blackheaded gulls, the marital problems of slugs, how garter snakes communicate, where crane flies lay their eggs, and so on are of palpitating concern and amazement to large slices of every community.
Although why we human beings should love these documentaries quite as much as we do is a bit of an enigma; for not only do we spend a good quarter of the time with our eyes shut, it being in the nature of nature to be flagrantly cruel and it being in the nature of filmmakers to give us close-ups of it being so, but we also appear at such a disadvantage. In comparison with, say, lions. Or hummingbirds. Or even conch shells.
This is speaking aesthetically, of course. We can still pride ourselves on working a computer better than does a gazelle; but how about looks? Discarding worms, weevils, toads, lobsters, and hippos, all astoundingly ugly (there might be one or two other homely creatures going around but I can't think what they are at the moment), most animals tend to have a grace and grandeur far in excess of ours. Even the camel, which someone has suggested is a horse designed by a committee, bears its peculiar appearance with a lordly, self-confident air.
Compared with us, animals are larger, smaller, svelter, livelier, fleeter, and more stylish, intuitive, and muscular. They also come in much prettier colors. That they also make one ponder the mysteries of creation adds another dimension to one's viewing of them - the fantastic variety of their shapes and sizes, their functions and factions causing renewed speculation on the origin of the species. Such inventiveness! Such profligacy! And what can a liver fluke be for, for heaven's sake!
The mysteries of the seabed, revealed but not explained by microscope and underwater camera, open up such an alarming vista of nature's infinity that mere men and women are liable to feel depressingly inferior. In one drop of water there are exposed objects like orange shrimps holding petunia parasols over saffron worms wearing goggles, several thousands of which, we are told, could sit on a pin's head, and this tends to make one regard the human race with some indifference. Beside plankton, man is a dull, feeble, colorless fellow.
Which is perhaps why we love to watch animal films, pathetically worshiping the magnificent tiger, envying the butterfly and the bird of paradise, forgetting for a while that none of these has written an opera or even ridden a bicycle, that no giraffe has expressed its views on the mutability of earthly greatness, no mouse made a baked Alaska. Things that should be remembered. They make all the difference. But not, perhaps, until the rippling panther, black as night, has stared at one from the''box'' with arrogant amber eyes before loping off into the sunset.