It’s not about the Mermaids: Animal Planet’s track record of fabricated reality

The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen, of which this post is not about. Photo by ADT.

The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen, of which this post is not about. Photo by ADT.

I have fond memories of Animal Planet. I grew up with Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin. On the rare occasions when I have caught their recent programming, I’ve enjoyed shows like River Monsters and Monsters Inside Me. These are certainly not high-minded nature documentaries like Planet Earth and Blue Planet, but they manage to be both entertaining and informative. Then came the ghost hunters, pet psychics, bigfoot hunters, and mermaids. I started watching with a cynical eye*, started noticing things that seemed out of place: a catfish that looked already dead before being caught, a multitude of pets that looked surprisingly healthy considering their life in a hoarders house, conversations that seemed awkward, forced, and disjointed. And then there was Mermaids.

I’m not naive to the realities of reality shows**, but I do believe that channels like Animal Planet, channels that bill themselves as educational programming, have a responsibility to present fact-based programming. I also believe the public has a reasonable expectation that Animal Planet’s programming is at least honest in the events it portrays. Whale Wars is not Storage Wars. I’m also not a reality TV hater, and believe that it is possible to create compelling, educational programming in that format. After all, had it aired today, the Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau would have been classified as a reality show.

I’m not even talking about intentionally fake shows, like Lost Tapes or Mermaids: the Body Found, nor am I talking about shows with supernatural premises, like Pet Psychics or The Haunted, although I do have problems with the ways those shows portray the supernatural credulously while marketing them as science-based. I’m talking specifically about shows where Animal Planet stages, distorts, or manufactures scenes and then presents them as being actual events captured by their film crew. I’m talking about outright deception with the intention of misleading the audience.

I’m also talking about evidence. Over the years, I have had hundreds of head-scratching moments while watching Animal Planet shows that I strongly suspect were staged. For some the evidence is there, but, unless someone involved in the production comes forward, most will remain unconfirmed. Instead of wallowing in hearsay, I present to you four cases in which we have convincing evidence–statements from members of the cast, discordance with widely reported events, or witness and expert testimony–that an Animal Planet show is staged.

Let’s talk about snakes.

Cottonmouth. Photo by Geoff Gallice.

Call of the Wildman is a show that features the Turtleman, Ernie Brown Jr., an animal handler, taking on various bizarre wildlife scenarios. 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.

Let’s talk about Whale Wars.

Yes, we have a long history of being critical of Sea Shepherd, but this is not one of those times. This post is about Sea Shepherd only inasmuch as they are the cast of Whale Wars. Up until the 2012-2013 campaign, Animal Planet had its own film crew aboard and Animal Planet was responsible for compiling and editing the footage for the final product. Sea Shepherd had little control over what Animal Planet did with the footage once it was shot. All of which means that it is now up to Animal Planet to repair the tears in space-time which emerged in the 2011 Antarctic whaling season.

Sea Shepherd Crew recover a life raft from the Berserk. Photo by Barbara Veiga - Sea Shepherd

Steve Irwin crew recovers a life raft from the Berserk. Photo by Barbara Veiga – Sea Shepherd

During season four of Whale Wars, the Steve Irwin assists in a search and rescue for a lost sailing vessel, the Berserk. What follows is a surprisingly poignant and heartfelt exploration of the risks and consequences of operating in the Southern Ocean. It was probably the single most moving episode in Whale Wars’ 6 year history. I’m pretty hard on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, but those kids willingly assisted in a search and rescue in one of the most dangerous seas on earth. No one can fault them for that and the crew of the Steve Irwin certainly deserves the commendation they were given.

Which is why it’s particularly offensive that Animal Planet decided that the actions of the Sea Shepherd crew were not heroic enough on their own merit, and decided it needed to add a little extra conflict.

You could be forgiven if you thought that the Steve Irwin suspended its hunt for the Japanese whaling fleet in order to search for the Berserk. It certainly seemed that way in the show, with careful edits that made the crew appear to be discussing how much they ground they would lose by abandoning their hunt for the factory ship. There is, of course, one problem. Japan formally ended the 2011 whaling season on February 18, 2011. The Steve Irwin joined the search for the Berserk on February 23, 2011 (download the official report here). The timeline presented by Animal Planet is backwards. Rather than ending the show’s season with a powerful story about the real dangers of life in the Southern Ocean, Animal Planet opted for a lukewarm ship-to-ship showdown in which, as usual, nothing happened.

Let’s talk about alligators.

What separates Gator Boys from a slew of other “alligator wrangler” shows is that they are a trap-and-release team. While other shows feature trappers using baited hooks and then killing the alligators, the Gator Boys  team uses their wits to wrangle nuisance alligators and then release them far from human habitation.

So the story goes.

Unfortunately, Florida wildlife officials see things rather differently. Following an incident in which a state wildlife officer observed the team reenacting a scene without proper permits and using a captive alligator, they opened an investigation in the Gator Boys program. The investigation determined that the Gator Boys were using methods considered unsafe by Florida’s nuisance alligator program. According to Lindsay Hord, director of Florida’s nuisance alligator program: “Our nuisance alligator trappers are required to use safe handling techniques. All that wrestling they do, getting in the water with gators, is all potentially dangerous and we would not allow our nuisance alligator trappers to do that sort of thing. If these are captive alligators they’re handling, they’re different from the wild ones. They’re not as afraid of people as a wild one would be. We hope people don’t watch this show and say “I see how they do it,” and try it with wild alligators.”

So, either the Gator Boys are repeatedly in violation of their trapping permit, or they’re frequently using captive alligators to stage rescues. Either way, this is poor form for Animal Planet.

Let’s talk about Bigfoot.

Actually, let’s not, because I said we are not talking about the  supernatural premise of Animal Planet’s shows. Rather, let’s talk about the Bigfoot hunters, and how Animal Planet manipulated their own experiences to manufacture mysterious “sightings”.

Is this the rare Deep Sea Sasquatch sighted in New Zealand? Probably not. Photo by ADT.

Is this the rare Deep Sea Sasquatch sighted in New Zealand? Probably not. Photo by ADT.

In Finding Bigfoot, a team of Bigfoot hunters wander around random forests looking for evidence of the mighty Sasquatch****. The show relies heavily on thermal imaging to highlight heat anomalies in the distance. In one episode, an unidentified figure is seen standing in a field. From a distance, the figure is bright, but hard to identify. As the team approaches, the camera cuts away from the thermal image and turns to a surprised team and exclaims that the unidentified creature disappeared into the forest. What was that figure? Did the show finally capture a slightly credible Bigfoot sighting?

According to Matt Moneymaker, founder of the Bigfoot Research Organization and leader of the Finding Bigfoot team, the answer is a resounding no. The creature they saw, well, I’ll let Mr. Moneymaker explains:

“The heat blip in the meadow was a horse. I said so on camera. I talked about the horse for a good long while. I figured the producers would edit it honestly, but they didn’t. Their editing made it look as though I did not identify the figure before it ran off. I did. It was a horse. They inserted lines from other scenes where I talk about something running away before I could figure out what it was.”

source

In a different episode, Moneymaker is seen chasing a “bipedal creature” into the woods–perhaps thinking that, after decades of searching, he could just run a Bigfoot down. Or maybe not:

“The thing I ran after up the hill was a human — someone who was sneaking around us in the woods trying to watch the production in progress. I said so repeatedly and vehemently at the time, for the cameras, but they edited out all of that in order to make it seem unclear what I was chasing after.”

source

Another team member adds “Everything Matt said is true. We’re getting screwed. You people have no idea how much Matt and I fought with the producers to have any legitimacy on this show…Sorry to all of the squatchers that are bummed out on how they’re doing it. I assure it isn’t us.

So, just to recap, Animal Planet’s manipulation and distortion of their programming is so bad that even Bigfoot hunters are claiming it compromises their credibility.

Whisky Tango Foxtrot?

These are not isolated incidents, and it is not just the big budget mockumentaries. Animal Planet has a long track record of systematically distorting its ostensibly educational programming to manufacture drama. These four examples were chosen because they are well supported with reliable evidence, however, watching Animal Planet critically reveals scenes like these in almost every show*****. The examples above highlight some of the real world consequences of this manipulation, some of which are simply offensive–like devaluing the importance of an at-sea search and rescue–and some are damaging to reputations–like spreading rumors of snake infestations or making people look like fools; but when these shows actually threaten the animals featured–either by whipping up fear or promoting unsafe handling practices–then we have crossed a dangerous line. Making people who have consented to appear on their shows look stupid may be irresponsible, but endangering wildlife that have no control over how (or if) they are portrayed is immoral.


*To be fair, I rarely watch cable TV, and my Animal Planet viewings are largely limited to when I visit my family for the holidays or am stuck in a hotel while traveling.

**I was even on one, and the first reader who was not at my wedding that can guess which show gets an internet cookie.

***Here’s a handy guide that shows how to tell the difference between watersnakes and cottonmouths.

****I refuse to use the term “Squatch”. “Squatch” is a stupid word.

*****Yes, David, even the Puppy Bowl.

  1. When I was attending marine biology summer camp (ha ha, yes, David was a nerd even in middle school), I was a student in the shark biology class. We went out and caught sharks and would learn about shark science.

    One day, an Animal Planet film crew joined us to document nurse sharks… after first instructing our counselor to catch some nurse sharks in advance and plant them, still attached to hooks, at a few sites we were going to be fishing.

    Nurse sharks respond to capture stress better than most species, but at the end of the day, we’re talking about restraining and stressing large animals for at least several hours so that a film crew could take a dramatic shot of us “catching” them. As campers we were instructed to act surprised and excited at the “catch” for reaction shots.

    I never saw the episode and if the crew told us what show they were with, I don’t remember it (I was 15), but the experience stuck with me.

    • All I can say is thank God for the internet. There is absolutely no educational content of any value on television, in fact I truly believe that T.V. is reducing the minds of the American public to mush. God help us all.

  2. It’s only going to get worse if SSCS controls the editing for Whale Wars…..Continuity has never been their strong point…Every episode would be a fabricated propaganda piece….

  3. Don’t stop at Animal Planet. All of the Discovery Network channels have gone through a significant change in the past several years. TLC? Look at their program line up and tell me what you can learn from Honey Boo-Boo? American Gypsy’s? The History Channel? Where’s the History? They have a show called Swamp People glorifying the killing of alligators. I don’t want to watch anything that shows an innocent animal being taken from it’s natural environment and killed. Especially for entertainment.

  4. I never watch Animal Planet anymore. I used to watch it everyday when they had programs with Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin. Shows like Escape to Chimp Eden, Animal Cops, Orangutan Island, Planet Earth, Blue Planet, etc. I don’t want to see someone make a fish tank, I prefer to see the fish in their natural habitat. I don’t want to watch someone kill an alligator, or for that matter any animal. I don’t want to watch some crazy man with bad teeth kiss snapping turtles. If you want to teach people about animals, which is what I assume “Animal” Planet would like to do then show us how humans are destroying their natural habitat, killing them for their body parts and how some of us are trying to help them.

    • One of the problems is assuming Animal Planet would like to be educational. They do not. They would like viewers so they can sell air time to advertisers. That is all any television channel is and why I don’t completely understand the outrage. I think our emphasis should be on getting the world out that this is not education and not trying to get AP to change their ways based on what we think/want the channel to be.

  5. I stopped watching Animal Planet when it went all animal “cop” shows. Out of curiosity I watched quite a few episodes of the bigfoot show and am astounded at the way these “researchers” declare positive conclusive findings based only on their belief a bigfoot is there. As if any animal would remain in the area of large men hooting in the night, rumbling thru the woods. I can see why Animal Planet would think it has to make things up when, season after season, these shows find nothing. It’s all deplorable and I routinely program AP out of my cable.

  6. Please tell me you’ve volunteered for the Science and Entertainment Exchange. I work in natural disasters, and have similar indignation defending, “Modify what you need to for the narrative, but don’t spread false information that will endanger lives.” By volunteering to talk to filmmakers who are at least curious about what “correct” would look like, you’re supporting a tiny chance for accuracy in movies.

  7. Shows like Mermaid and Big Foot belong on the Sci Fi ch. I watch animal planet to see animals in their natural habitat, like Merkat Manner, Big Cats, the show that focus on the wild animals in Africa like Elephants. Its been very frustrating to find very few of these real animal shows on Animal Planet. I went from a frequent viewer to an occasional viewer at best.

  8. I don’t entirely disagree with you, however I would like to raise a few points of contention: the problem is the shift in target audience. I would like to state that I am simply playing devil’s advocate, not actually defending the degradation of television standards.

    Sadly, much of western society isn’t patient enough for networks to warrant airing the classically-edited, comparatively ‘slow’ documentaries we used to enjoy any more.

    It’s all about concentrated excitement or ‘action’ on an instant gratification basis, and it eventually becomes unintelligible and cheesy. So they have to replace it with something even more over-the-top, and herein begins the disposable entertainment cycle.

    Western culture – again, overall, I don’t mean to generalize – is no longer willing to spend the time or funding on waiting for weeks to catch a glimpse of what COULD be the animal they’re seeking. It’s no surprise therefore that a lot of the portrayed circumstances are staged. To satisfy their demographic they will only show the most exciting or dangerous footage.

    The consumer demographic that Animal Planet is now targeting – don’t even start me on A&E’s sudden obsession with how hunting is now suitable ‘entertainment’ for family timeslots – is a much more stimulation-demanding audience than the traditional David Attenborough worshippers of yesteryear (my lifelong idol). It’s sad, but this is the age we live in.

    With regards to paranormal shows, take them with a grain of salt. True, they shouldn’t be on AP. Clearly lazy filler programming. But the pseudoscience (they don’t seem to know that word) of parapsychology (or that one) has some merit, backed by metaphysical theories and concepts. Obviously most shows are staged and fictional, again to satisfy the minimum ‘entertainment’ requirements.

    Personally I really enjoyed a few episodes of Ghost Lab; it was much more ‘prove-or-disprove’ cut and dry evidence analysis than the other ‘scary demonic monster’ type of shows. I have had many unexplained personal experiences that I put down to psychology; however, I am very open-minded to something that is theoretically plausible.

    Lastly, squatch is the most moronic bastardisation of the English language I’ve ever had the misfortune of hearing, short of ‘amazeballs’. I would recommend watching BBC instead, but hey, apparently they used to drive lemmings off cliffs for their footage.

    I guess the lesson here is to question EVERYTHING.

    • I think you may be wagging the dog. Are the networks targeting TV to an ignorant audience, or is schlock TV making the audience ignorant? Obviously, with shows like Honey Boo-Boo on The Learning Channel, (WTF?!? Seriously?) They have departed from their original intent. Although I hear people talking about the shows, everyone disses them for being stupid, vapid, and a far cry from what the channel used to carry.
      I fully believe that if the networks instead produced quality, intelligent programming, their viewers would respond in droves, and there would be tremendous positive feedback. But the trend in TV has long been to dumb things down. TV is being used to placate & pacify, not to inform & educate. The problem goes far beyond the corruption of what used to be good educational channels.

  9. It really bothered me when they started airing fishing shows. What’s next, hunting shows? I (used to) watch Animal Planet because I LOVE animals. I’ll stick with Nature on PBS.

  10. I don’t often watch this type of show, but recently I was watching an episode about poisonous snakes in Australia. After a snake bit a rat and waited for it to die it opened its mouth and the soundtrack inserted a loud roar. That seemed so ridiculous I had to switch channels.

  11. If you Google a recent FBN interview with David Zaslav, Discovery Communications CEO, you’ll find he’s very proud of Mermaids: The New Evidence, which ranked #1 in its timeslot etc.

    He is also proud of the success of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” on TLC (formerly “The Learning Channel”?!), another part of the Discovery network.

    Making stuff up with CGI etc is of course easier than making new discoveries for real in the ocean. And because the viewer figures appear to show that people are happy with that, I think we can expect more of the same.

    The impact may be also wider than just the Discovery network. “Quality” documentaries such as Planet Earth, or Frozen Planet etc, can no longer be produced by the BBC Natural History Unit alone; they require co-financing from international partners such as Discovery. So if fiction is in vogue with those partners, it may be hard to convince them to invest in the kind of epic, real documentaries that inspired many of us as kids.

    And here are some figures to ponder:

    Discovery Communications expects a worldwide overall net income (profit) of >$1.2 BILLION this year (http://news.yahoo.com/discovery-1q-profit-just-short-182940782.html).

    Zaslav himself pocketed around $52 million in 2011 (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/entertainmentnewsbuzz/2012/04/david-zaslav-is-discoverys-52-million-man.html).

    The current annual budget for the entire NOAA Ocean Exploration Program is $24 million.

  12. Several years ago I attended a “Crew Boss” wildfire academy in Alabama. One of the guys assigned to the same crew I was on was a firefighter at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Steve Irwin had recently done a series of episodes about wildlife management on the sprawling base. I asked the guy if he had seen Irwin. He hadn’t, but told me he had been involved in catching a number of rattlesnakes for use in the show. They had been put in a refrigerator, then planted in the woods so Irwin could “discover” them, also in a near dormant, mostly harmless condition: body temp about 40F.

  13. The Crocodile Hunter made Animal Planet the go to channel for nature and wildlife education. After Steve passed away it has only gone downhill at warp speed. While I totally support Sea Shepherd and their mission and tactics, I am very upset at the manipulation and distortion of the facts by AP. Discovery networks in general should be ashamed of their mistreatment of people and wildlife in the name of profit. Reality TV was once interesting and educational thanks to Cousteau, Irwin, Corwin and Stroud to name a few but recently TV in general has sunk to an all time low of animal hating and fear mongering such as the horrible show rattlesnake republic that is just unbelievable in its blatant mistreatment of native, beneficial wildlife for the profit of a few stupid rednecks. Thank goodness for Netflix where we can watch our favorite documentaries uncut and commercial free.

  14. ANIMAL PLANET! WE USED TO HAVE UR STATION ON 24/7. Since you dumpd whale wars, and have put up all these sickening kill animal shows(gator boys etc) we no longer watch you.

  15. “While I totally support Sea Shepherd and their mission and tactics, I am very upset at the manipulation and distortion of the facts by AP.”

    Did I read that right? You love Sea Shepherd but you disdain manipulation and distortion of facts.
    Seriously?
    Think it thru first, and reply slowly. You’re implying that internationally wanted Paul and his merry band of trust fund babies are honest in their dealings?
    Seriously?

  16. Unfortunately, the level of sensationalism and fear mongering Animal planet uses with regards to snakes doesn’t stop at staging venomous snakes in swimming pools. Animal planet has also aired several programs on the issue of feral Burmese pythons in south Florida with blatent disregard for facts. They have used shoddy and widely discredited “science” that predicts Burmese pythons are capable of inhabiting the southern 1/3 of the U.S. while hybridizing with other species of pythons also present in Florida to scare their viewers and the public that giant “man eating super snakes” are real and posed to colonize the U.S while eating pets and school bus loads of children along the way.

  17. Mermaids, schmeraids. Animal planet? How bout Discovery Channel and Shark Week? Megalodon in South Africa eats a fishing boat? And who’s this unknown set of shark researchers that can’t be googled? I used to like Shark Week, now it may as well be the Sci Fi Channel.

    Sorry to hijack the thread…

  18. The reason I think outrage is warranted about Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel networks is that they benefit from a brand reputation their product no longer supports. They make money on their programming, but they *sell* their brand. Part of the reason those sensational edits have the traction with audiences they do is that they can get away with presenting them as real. Hiding their manipulations is key to maintaining their brand and so their audience and advertising base.

    The trouble is not just that it’s dishonest, it’s that the deceit can actually cause harm to both people and wildlife, along with the credibility of any business that does produce fact-based content.