Friday, August 15, 2014

Wolves vs. Monsters: Animal Planet's Controversial Monster Week

The calm gaze of a grey wolf

Just in time for Father’s Day, California’s lone wolf OR-7 was found to have acquired a mate and fathered at least two pups. The first wolf to venture into California since 1924, OR-7 marks a huge win for wolf recovery in the West. But opposition to wolves and other threatened predatory species comes from all corners, even some surprising ones you may have thought you could trust.

When Animal Planet first launched, their logo featured a friendly elephant balancing a globe on his trunk, proudly emblazoned with the tagline "Same Planet, Different World". The channel featured shows such as "Wild Kingdom" and "The Jeff Corwin Experience"—programs that focused on observation of animals in their natural habitat and education about the species and their environment. In 2003, Animal Planet’s parent company, Discovery, made a small change that was indicative of a larger shift. The logo switched to a jagged edged graphic of the channel’s name, while the tagline became "Surprisingly Human". Since then, the programming has seen a dramatic shift toward the style of melodramatic reality television.

Anne Becker of the Broadcasting & Cable division, said in a press release at the time that they wanted to swap “a drab narrator saying that a lion is about to kill its prey for the blood-curdling scream of the doomed creature as it meets its demise.”

Since this move, Animal Planet’s programming has become increasingly controversial, culminating in the latest airing of "Monster Week", a package of programming designed to rack up ratings. The week included relatively benign shows such as "River Monsters", an extreme/exotic fish  wrangling show, and the just plain ridiculous made-for-TV fictional movie, "Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys".  While these programs are inane, they’re relatively harmless—at least compared to the specials called, "Man-Eating Super Squid", "Man-Eating Zombie Cats", and most controversially, "Man-Eating Super Wolves" (yes, all of those titles really do involve the phrase ‘Man-Eating’).

While all of these TV spots demonize rare and/or endangered animals, "Man-Eating Super Wolves" elicited uproar from animal and wilderness defense groups. Wolves are still making a slow recovery from their near-extinction due to hunting and habitat loss, and are protected under the Endangered Species Act in some of the US. In 2011, however, they were prematurely stripped of this protection in much of the Northern Rockies, where they face opposition from hunters and ranchers. In the promotional blurb for "Man-Eating Super Wolves", Animal Planet claimed that wolves have “razor sharp teeth, killer instincts, and senses so precise they hear your beating heart, and your fear.” The promo goes on to say that wolves exist in “numbers [that are] growing out of control” and that “they’re threatening humans like never before”.  In the past 100 years, however, there have only been anywhere from two to seven fatal wolf attacks in North America, depending on which report you read. In comparison, domestic dogs kill anywhere from 20-30 people every year and hunters are responsible for nearly 100 human deaths per annum in the US and Canada.

Defenders of Wildlife, one of the foremost wolf advocate groups, organized a petition in wake of the announcement of the show, which included strong language against the perpetuation of prejudice against wolves:

“Despite irrefutable scientific evidence to the contrary, Animal Planet knowingly presented as fact these same anti-wolf myths and inaccuracies that wiped out gray wolves nearly a century ago. For a network that emphasizes and prides itself on educational content and conservation-minded subject matter, [we are] outraged by the irresponsible misrepresentation of a still-recovering species that perpetuates lies and fear to millions across the country.” 

two grey wolves

The special aired only once, on May 21st. After receiving the petition, which garnered over 80,000 signatures, Animal Planet cancelled the rest of the planned airings, and is now claiming they only ever planned to air the show once (although there were three more airings originally scheduled). The International Wolf Center corroborates Defenders of Wildlife’s message, saying that “Wolf attacks on humans are uncommon and extremely rare. To suggest that wolves have consumed all of their natural prey and are beginning to feed on humans is ridiculous and demonstrates a lack of understanding of our natural world.”

Dan Chu, the Senior Campaign Director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign also weighed in on the issue:''

“Blurring the line between fiction and fact is not a responsible action, especially when it comes to endangered species. I would rather see educational content about the importance of predators and their key role in the ecosystem, like keeping elk populations under control, which restores the health of the rivers and their accompanying riparian areas. If there’s fear about these animals, programs like Animal Planet need to be educating people about the common sense of how to avoid dangerous encounters, instead of presenting fear-mongering fictional content and claiming to be a documentary-esque program.”

A win like the return of OR-7 to California and his success in establishing the first California wolf pack in almost 100 years is “due to the recovery of wolf populations in the northern Rocky Mountains”, says Matt Kirby, Senior Campaign Representative of Our Wild America. “That’s what we should be focusing on—the positive effects of wolf recovery with more of a spotlight on the excitement. I think the popularity of programs like "Planet Earth" and "Life" are a testament to the existence of a market for that. Even though fear certainly sells, erroneous programs do a disservice to the scientists who are really trying to protect these endangered animals”. He adds that it’s especially important for media to showcase nature, especially big predators, in a positive light, “since people are so disconnected from nature these days. If TV is the only way people relate to their environment, we really need to think about how we’re going to represent wilderness. I think the fear really just stems from unfamiliarity.”

Animal Planet’s media representatives could not be reached for contact. Much of their programming has been under scrutiny lately following a Mother Jones investigation that uncovered many cases of animal negligence and illegal acts regarding the treatment of wildlife on the show "Call of the Wildman". The shady behind-the-scenes dealings of this show are being protested by PETA and looked into by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Despite the fact that these shows are bringing a critical spotlight to the channel’s content, Animal Planet is enjoying higher ratings than ever before. But that could change if they keep vilifying some of the US’s most important recovering species.

Photo Courtesy of hkuchera/iStock and gnagel/iSotck respectively