The death of a young elephant in the African savannah caused the first flood of the new year.

I doubt there was a dry eye on the nation's couches as David Attenborough's heart-tugging footage of a mother elephant comforting her dying offspring was screened last week. Since that episode of Africa, debate has raged over whether he and his producers have gone too far in making sentimental capital out of the natural world.

While accusations of anthropomorphism were flying, newspaper front pages featured a winsome child holding a fluffy bird to her ear, as if it were a phone. This photo came from the Academy Award-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wilds which, far from endowing this feathered prop with human sensibilities, treated it like a piece of plastic. Given what it will have endured during filming, one can only hope it was as robust.

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The theme of the week was thus as easy to read as the gleam in a hungry crocodile's eye. Whether they are filmed from a respectful distance, or have bit parts in feature films, animals are box-office gold. Say, for instance, Attenborough and his crew had filmed a rural African community struggling through a period of severe drought, rather than a herd of elephants and other exotic creatures, it would not have made a prime-time slot, nor enjoyed half the budget. What draws viewers is the prospect of a getting alarmingly – almost indecently – close to nature. And, while I would much prefer it if Africa's producer had not used music to underscore material that speaks eloquently for itself, this is the only criticism that can be levelled against what is otherwise documentary-making of the highest calibre.

Africa may be filmed as if it were a Hollywood blockbuster, but its ethos and ethics are scrupulous. If some find the reality of survival in the wild upsetting, that is an inevitable consequence of watching what an animal has to endure. Indeed, a week spent with a Scottish farmer or estate manager would throw up equally unpalatable, if less panoramic, scenes. But universal as the harsh facts of country life are, to find oneself moved by the sight of another creature's suffering is nothing to be ashamed of – quite the opposite.

Which is why it's strange and contradictory how often the treatment of animals in films falls far short of ideal. Allegations about the number of chickens, goats, sheep and horses that died off-set during the filming of The Hobbit in New Zealand recently has raised the issue again, but it grumbles persistently, year on year. It would seem that even the presence of animal welfare regulators such as the American Humane Association is insufficient to ensure that non-human cast members are well treated at all times. Indeed, such are the limitations on the conditions in which the regulators work that the feel-good assurances posted at the end of films telling us that no animals were hurt can be little more than weasel words.

Apparently Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Django Unchained, carries a prominent notice proclaiming that no horses were harmed in the shooting. This reflects how convincingly they appeared to die, but it may also be a response to the furore last year around the HBO series Luck, about racetrack gambling, in which three horses were put down after being injured on set. As the producer said: "While we maintained the highest safety standards possible, accidents unfortunately happen and it is impossible to guarantee they won't in the future." Such was the outcry that a second series was not commissioned. Unrepentant about depicting violence though he is, Tarantino is nevertheless wise enough to know that the merest hint of animal maltreatment could be commercial and career suicide.

However misleading or honest the disclaimers posted on movies – and it's unsettling to learn you cannot trust them – the gulf between the dignity accorded to the animals in documentaries like Africa, and that in the film and television business, is striking. In an ideal world, the only live creatures to appear on our screens would be filmed from afar, and untouched by human hand. As all wild animals know, their best chance of survival is staying far away from us.