Expert Voices

When Wildlife TV Programs Hurt the Wildlife (Op-Ed)

Cute raccoon. (Image credit: Dreamstime.)

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff's latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed (New World Library, 2013). This Op-Ed is adapted from two that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

I like to believe that animal abuse in film and television is a thing of the past, but it isn't. In a recent essay, I reported on well-documented abuse in Hollywood and that the phrase "No Animals Were Harmed" is a myth.

And now, a number of people have sent me two recent essays published in Mother Jones magazine on animal abuse at Animal Planet (Discovery Communications). The first, called "Drugs, Death, Neglect: Behind the Scenes at Animal Planet" by James West, reported on the abuse of three baby raccoon stars of Animal Planet's hit show "Call of the Wildman" and other animals used in other shows. The baby raccoons were emaciated and "almost dead" according to Karen Bailey who runs the Kentucky Wildlife Center outside of Georgetown in Central Kentucky. Miraculously, she managed to save two of the three.

And, in addition to the horrific mistreatment, the essay presents evidence that elements of this show and others are fabricated — manufactured and staged — and even include "fake animal droppings using Nutella, Snickers bars, and rice."

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West's essay is worth a careful read. A brief summary on Salon states, "West's seven-month investigation, which drew on internal documents, interviews with sources closely involved with the show's production (who risked up to $1 million in damages for breaching their confidentiality agreements), and government documents, exposes a culture far from the animal-loving ethos promoted by the program." For example, in addition to the abuse of the raccoons, a drugged captive zebra was used in another Animal Planet episode called Lone Stars and Stripes"to get it to be less crazy."

It is essential that people not only know about the prevalence of abuse of nonhuman animal stars, but also that what an audience sees isn't a true story. An "Ethics Hotline" for Discovery Communications is available, and their viewer relations department is also available to the public.

Editor's Note: Bekoff recently was a guest on the Pacifica Radio program The Scholars' Circle in a panel discussion contemplating the question, "What might similarities between humans and animals teach us about the human condition and our relationship to other species?"Panel members included Bekoff; Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist and director of Imaging at the UCLA Cardiac Arrhythmia Center, a cardiac consultant for the Los Angeles Zoo, and co-author of "Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health (Vintage, 2013); and Stan Kuczaj, director of the Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi and coauthor of "Emotions of Animals and Humans: Comparative Perspectives" (Springer, 2012). The broadcast is available on at the archive date January 26, 2014.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "Squatters Rights: Why Do Humans Need Toilet Paper and Animals Don't?" This article was primarily adapted from "Animal Abuse at Animal Planet: Drugs, Death, and Neglect" in Psychology Today. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.