You already knew that Animal Planet had a way of distorting reality. They present documentaries about the existence of mermaids and Bigfoot and only barely acknowledge that it's all nonsense. But now evidence is mounting that some of the shows they air actually harm animals.
Earlier this year, Mother Jones published the results of a massive 7-month investigation of the "reality" show Call of the Wildman, which features a man named Ernie Brown Jr. (aka "Turtleman") who captures so-called "nuisance animals." The critters are causing trouble for businesses or homeowners, and the Turtleman releases them elsewhere, ostensibly allowing those animals a second chance at life. In many places, there is legislation in place that allows for the killing of problem animals. If that were the whole story, it would actually be doubly heartening: an educational show that also has a measurable impact on animal welfare. If only.
The Mother Jones investigation, led by James West, found:
evidence of a culture that tolerated legally and ethically dubious activities, including: using an animal that had been drugged with sedatives in violation of federal rules; directing trappers to procure wild animals, which were then caught again as part of a script; and wrongly filling out legal documents detailing the crew's wildlife activities.
In an interview coordinated by a Manhattan crisis manager following the accusations (and in emails that followed),
the producers admitted that some animals had been improperly handled, but blamed most wrongdoing on subcontractors. "The person who is providing that animal for production is responsible for adhering to those legal requirements," says Patricia Kollappallil, senior vice president for communications for Animal Planet.
Nevermind the fact that Animal Planet ought to take responsibility for the shows it airs; a long-term investigation wasn't necessary to see that the show was at best misleading (and at worst, abusive and full of lies). It was obvious to anybody with just a bit of expertise in animal behavior or ecology. Last July, nearly six months before the Mother Jones story broke, Andrew Thaler of Southern Fried Science wrote of Animal Planet's "fabricated reality," including problems with Call of the Wildman:
In the first episode of season 2, the Turtleman is called in to deal with a cache of venomous snakes–Cottonmouths–infesting a community pool in Danville, Kentucky. The Turtleman successfully captures the offending snakes and the children of Danville are now safe from pool monsters. Yay.
There's just one problem: cottonmouths don't live anywhere near that part of Kentucky.
Despite Animal Planet's insistence that the show portrays an actual encounter, snake expert and director of The Kentucky Reptile Zoo, Jim Harrison says that the pool rescue was not only staged, but demonstrated very poor snake handling techniques. A later probe into the incident by the Danville parks department determined that "the snakes were brought into the pool area, accompanied by a medic, and then were captured by Brown. The show left viewers with the impression that one snake was found in the pool and that others were on the property."
It's just a TV show, so what?
Cottonmouths don't live in that region of Kentucky, but watersnakes do. Snakes get a bad rap, and when people are told that large, venomous snakes are hiding in their pools, they want to get rid of them. Following the episodes airing, Harrison received numerous calls from concerned citizens who had found or killed 'cottonmouths' that were, in all likelihood, harmless watersnakes. The unsafe handling of the snakes promoted in the show can also lead to serious injuries should people attempt to capture actual cottonmouths using those techniques. And, of course, the city of Danville is rightfully concerned that a TV crew released poisonous snakes into their community pool.
Not only are the animal handling techniques improper and unethical, there isn't even any greater educational good. It's all nonsense, all the way down. (It's well worth reading Thaler's entire post.)
Now, Mother Jones has come back with a follow up to their original piece. Add breaking Kentucky wildlife law to misinformation and improper animal care to the list of sins:
- A photo obtained by Mother Jones from a person who worked on the production shows a coyote that was captured at the request of producers and held in a cramped trap for an unknown period of time prior to filming on location in Kentucky, according to the person who provided the photo. By the time of the shoot, according to two people who worked on the production, the coyote was "sick and unresponsive" and had to be replaced.
- According to internal production documents and communications obtained by Mother Jones, the show quickly brought in a replacement coyote for the shoot from Ohio. Kentucky law, with rare exception, forbids the importation of coyotes.
- According to internal documents and data analysis of the photo, the sick coyote had been held captive for more than three days after it was trapped by a licensed nuisance wildlife control operator working for the show. Without a specific permit—which the NWCO working for the show did not have—Kentucky regulations forbid holding captured wildlife for more than 48 hours.
- Mother Jones has also obtained government documents showing that state wildlife regulators began warning the show's star about violations in March 2012—more than a year before Sharp Entertainment, the producer of the show, says that it first became aware of complaints about animal mistreatment in connection with Call of the Wildman.
That's of course in addition to the fact that the cage in which the coyote was confined - pictured above - is far too small for continued holding, and only a last resort for transport, according to a University of Kentucky Professor of wildlife ecology and conservation biology interviewed for the Mother Jones piece.
Television can be a great tool for teaching people about the natural world, but Animal Planet has erred in recent years. I grew up watching animal shows on TV, hosted by folks like Steve Irwin or Jeff Corwin. By and large, those shows usually commanded a healthy respect for nature. It's not to say that stuffy, narrated nature documentaries are the only way to go (though the overwhelming popularity of Planet Earth, Frozen Planet, and now Cosmos suggests they still have a place in the edu-tainment ecosystem) nor is it to say that those shows weren't occasionally problematic in other ways. There are still mechanisms for responsible, ethical reality-style series, like Nat Geo Wild's The Incredible Dr. Pol.
There is indeed a long history of manipulating nature to make for a better narrative but we have to do better. I do the work I do - both previously, as a cognitive scientist, and currently, as a science communicator - thanks in part to those nature shows of the nineties. What a shame it would be if future scientists and science communicators were turned off by reality television's race to the bottom.