The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nature television is running wild. The man-eating anaconda is just the latest atrocity.

False advertising wasn't the worst sin in the "Eaten Alive" publicity stunt.

Paul Rosolie of Discovery Channel’s Eaten Alive calls himself a naturalist. But there was nothing natural about his anaconda stunt. (Mohsin Kazmi/Discovery Channel)

The Discovery Channel’s overhyped “Eaten Alive” episode Sunday evening disappointed viewers for failing to deliver on its promise to show the ultimate man-versus-nature showdown. The promotional ads boasted that naturalist Paul Rosolie, armed with a “snake-proof suit,” would allow himself to be eaten by an anaconda. But Rosolie did not go into “the belly of the beast.” Nowhere close. He didn’t even get in the anaconda’s jaws.

The bait-and-switch move infuriated viewers. But false advertising was not the worst crime committed. “Eaten Alive” featured an appalling example of human-animal relations. Snakes were jumped on, grabbed, pestered, goaded, and harassed. Animal harassment for the sake of entertainment is one of the most troubling ethical issues in wildlife filmmaking, and one that is increasingly common with the advent of nature reality television shows. Other networks, including some that claim to have environmental and educational goals, are equally guilty of going to extremes to capture “money shots.”

The MTV series “Wildboyz” was a repeat offender, featuring hosts who chased cheetahs, grabbed crocodiles, stuck their tongues in a giraffe’s mouth, and goaded scorpions into stinging them. In the Animal Planet show “Into the Pride,” animal trainer Dave Salmoni informs viewers that an overly aggressive pride of lions must be tamed to accept a growing number of ecotourists in the area, or they’ll be killed. But Salmoni “calms” the animals by increasingly aggravating them –maneuvering cameras in the faces of their cubs and walking toward their fresh antelope kill. The lions are gratuitously provoked to produce exciting television and, in the process, they become upset, alarmed, and needlessly stressed. Then there was Sarah Palin’s caribou slaughter on her short-lived Learning Channel show “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.” Airing footage of an animal’s death purely for viewer enjoyment takes a special kind of insensitivity.

There are many ethical issues in documenting animals’ natural lives through photography, including deceiving the audience by using captive animals and harming conservation by demonizing animals like sharks and wolves. Of these, animal harassment is particularly troubling because it will, by definition, distress the animal and even injure it. Justifying animal harassment in the name of conservation or awareness of environmental issues is unethical, yet pervasive in the industry. It’s also challenging to combat because most of the cruelty happens out in the field, with no witnesses.

Often adding to the abusive nature of a show, producers sometimes push a duplicitous defense, insisting that the show has conservationist goals. “Eaten Alive” tried this approach. In a statement on his Web site, Rosolie states, “The snakes that I work with are under threat from hunting and habitat destruction, and need help.” But as it turned out, there was virtually nothing in the show, apart from a few unpersuasive comments from Rosolie, to encourage conservation of the rain forest or to help anacondas. This is a new form of greenwashing, a deceptive PR effort to make a product seem more environmentally friendly than it is. This is especially offensive coming from a network like Discovery Channel, which promotes itself as a source of environmental and educational information. The decision to air “Eaten Alive” has serious negative consequences not only for the wildlife involved in the stunt, but also for the public’s awareness of its condition.

“Eaten Alive” likely did more to harm the reputation of the anaconda than to enlighten people. The preview demonized the anaconda as a “dangerous beast” and the show pushed that image by goading the snake to attack. While these beleaguered animals are merely defending themselves against intruders, this type of programming simply perpetuates inflated and irrational fears about the dangers of wildlife. The public is unlikely to support a species that they perceive as menacing. If “naturalists” like Rosolie and “environmental authorities” like Discovery Channel and Animal Planet fail to demonstrate appropriate respect towards wildlife, why would the general public?

The drive for ratings motivates television executives to green-light irresponsible programs like “Eaten Alive.” The goals of conservation and animal welfare have been thrown out the window. It is certainly possible to have programs that are both educational and fun. Broadcasters have shown they can do this with programs such as “Planet Earth” on Discovery and the BBC, “Kingdom of the Apes” on Nat Geo Wild, and “Whale Wars” on Animal Planet. We can do the public — and the environment — a great service by supporting positive examples of conservation and environmental programming. It’s time to give irresponsible programming a red light.

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