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.

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Is Whale Wars a waste of money?

Portobello Road

Lindsey Peavey is  a PhD student in the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  She is a marine ecologist whose research seeks to find a sustainable balance between human resource use and species conservation.  You can follow her work on Twitter (@lepeavey) and her blog, turtlesinthedeep.org.

Last December, I sat down to enjoy a pizza pie and draft beer with my friend Neal, a 6-foot, 5-inch, 280-lb. (think offensive lineman), die-hard conservative republican. He was giddy with excitement to talk with me about one of his favorite TV shows, Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars.” Knowing that I’m a tree hugger by nature and a marine biologist by trade, he thought an hour of “Save the whales!” camaraderie was ahead. He was shocked when I let out a long sigh and confessed, “I’m not a fan of Whale Wars.”

Neal was completely deflated. He demanded to know why I didn’t like the show. Shouldn’t I, of all people, be Sea Shepherd’s No. 1 fan? I offered my gripes: It’s outrageously expensive to operate a vessel like Sea Shepherd’s SSS Steve Irwin in the extremely volatile and dangerous environment of intercepting Japanese whaling vessels in the Antarctic — on the order of tens of thousands of dollars a day. Although funds are available to support these operations, the return on investment is unclear. How many whales are actually being saved?

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Whale Quotas and Sea Shepherd

We sparked a good debate over the effectiveness of direct action conservation movements over at the post “Is Sea Shepherd really saving whales?” One of the most difficult questions raised was if Sea Shepherd wasn’t there, would the Japanese make their full quota? The data presented in that post was inconclusive, because the quota increase corresponded to the beginning of SSCS’s Southern Ocean campaign, so we have no time period in which the Japanese quota was increased while Sea Shepherd was absent.

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Is Sea Shepherd really saving whales?

Sea Shepherd claims that their actions in the Southern Ocean opposing Japanese whaling fleets has effectively reduced the number of whales killed. What always rubbed me the wrong way about these claims is that they always compare their success against the Institute for Cetacean Research (the Japanese organization that oversees ‘scientific whaling’) Quotas. So at some point you have to ask the question, in absolute numbers, has Sea Shepherd really reduced the number of whales killed?

To answer that we need three pieces of information:

  1. When did Sea Shepherd begin it’s campaign against Japanese ‘scientific whaling’?
  2. What are the ICR quotas for that time frame?
  3. What are the absolute catches for that time frame?

Sea Shepherd provides a comprehensive timeline for their whaling campaigns that indicates serious opposition in the Southern Ocean began in December 2002. For the two other questions, we turn to Whale and Dolphin Conservation International, who have produced a truly exceptional interactive graph of the history of whaling since the inception of the International Whaling Convention by the numbers. The relevant figure is reproduced below:

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Sea Shepherd and Whale Wars

We have been and continue to be critical of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Although their goals are admirable their methods are not only ineffective, but in some cases impair the achievement of those goals.  With the premier of Whale Wars season 3 tomorrow evening, we’d like to take a moment to highlight the issues we’ve raised concerning the SSCS. Over the last two years we’ve written a number of post summarizing our problems with Sea Shepherd:

Our friends at Deep Sea News and Underwater Thrills have been critical of SSCS, too:

The above links cover many of the issues we have with this organization. The New York Times recently published an excellent breakdown of the Japanese Whaling Industry. Below are our main criticisms of SSCS:

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