NOT TOO LONG AGO, my son and I watched on television as the wild dogs of Africa ran down a sick old antelope and ripped it apart. A lot of blood flowed. A week later on the same show, the antelopes were replaced by baby seals. This time the killers were men with clubs. Again blood flowed. It was stanched by a commercial.
I have to admit that before the hunters could connect with their clubs on the tiny heads of the baby seals, I turned off the television set. I have seen films of the great seal hunt and it is, no matter where you may stand on the issue of the hunt itself, a gruesome spectacle. As for the show itself, "Those Amazing Animals," it simply had no position on the seal hunt, boldly saying only that while some people are opposed to it, the hunters themselves are merely trying to make a living.
One could point out that the same was true of concentration camp guards, but it would be silly to attack on some moral plane a show that recently featured "a drug-detecting dog, a skin diver who hugs moray eels and a camel that answers the telephone." But the show does have certain pretensions, and one of them is that it is educational. It says that as part of teaching you abut the wonderful animal kingdom out there, you have to learn that Mother Nature can sometimes be a bit cruel. It's dog eat dog out there, or at least dog eat antelope.
So true, so, so true. But there are whole hunks of life that are not shown on television and certainly not shown during the Sunday apres-dinner hour of 7 to 8 p.m. And it is also true that educational shows, even ones about animals, are not hosted by the likes of Burgess Meredith, Jim Stafford and Priscilla Presley, who comes to the show after a stint as the former everything -- former model, former clothes designer, former boutique owner and former wife of the late Elvis. In fact, the ABC biographies of all three of the cohosts mention not one word of what they know about animals. I, at least, own a dog.
What matters, though, is not that they are not zoologists, but that this is a show in which death -- animal death in this case -- is entertainment. In neither case -- not with the wild dogs and not with the baby seals -- was there any context to the film pieces. Neither show was devoted to the subject of wild dogs or baby seals. It was devoted instead to animal oddities and then -- totally gratuitously and without any context at all -- the grisly and most interesting oddity of them all -- death.
It is probably no coincidence that the producer of this show is the same one who brings us "That's Incredible," which is to people what his other show is to anmals. "That's Incredible" flirts with death much of the time, and features what used to be called "death-defying feats." That phrase, as used in carnivals and circuses, was mostly hype, since nothing could be worse for subsequent shows that the actual loss of the act. When applied to "That's Incredible," though, the phrase takes on new meaning.
I suppose that a person has an inalienable right to risk his or her life for the entertainment of millions and for the greater profit of both the sponsor and the network. I suppose that it has been going on a long time and there is just a bit of the death-defying element in car racing and boxing, and maybe football as well, but it is incidental to the real purpose of the game or the bout or the race -- winning or playing. This is not the case with death-defying feats that really are death-defying, which are not part of any sport or any game or any endeavor of any kind except simply doing something really dangerous and dumb and then living (you hope) to tell about it.
What you have with some episodes of these and some other shows is a kind of Hustler magazine of the air, a pandering to the audience's fascination with death and gore -- certainly as obscene in its own way as any sexual pornography, which would, of course, be prohibited on television. If these shows have any value at all, it is not what they teach us about animals, but what they teach us about ourselves. They remind us that we still have quite a bit in common with our ancient ancestors. They watched animals fight to the death in the Colosseum. We watch it on television. Bring on the animals. Television has made Romans of us all.