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Selling Lies About Wildlife

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 7, 2013

In the aftermath of the Discovery Channel fraud about monster sharks, here comes a long-overdue rant against the horrible lies being sold about the natural world by some of our leading television companies.

I hate to see what’s happening now because old friends work at some of these companies.  I have worked there, too.  But I know that even the producers who make it happen hate this stuff.

So check out this excerpt from the article by Adam Welz in The Guardian:  

If you’re North American or get US-produced satellite TV, you’ve probably learned a lot about wildlife from outlets like the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and History. You might trust these channels because you’ve seen educational, factually accurate shows on them, unlike the ‘trashy’ material that dominates free-to-air network TV.

But not everything on on these ‘factual’ channels might be as ethical or even as accurate as you might think, and the implications for conservation could be profound.

I recently spent a few entertaining hours watching episodes of Discovery’s Yukon Men, a hit ‘reality’ series about the residents of the small town of Tanana in central Alaska. Launched in August last year, it’s consistently gained over two million US viewers in its Friday night slot, been syndicated overseas, and helped the channel win some of itsbiggest audiences ever.

The first episode brings us to midwinter Tanana, which a theatrical, husky male voiceover tells us is “one of America’s most remote outposts” where “every day is a struggle to survive”. A dramatic, orchestral score pounds as we see a lynx struggling in a leghold trap, guns firing, a man attacking a squealing wolverine with a tree trunk, a wolf which a voice tells us “might eat one of those kids”, a hand lifting up the head of a bloodied, dead wolf to show us its teeth, and then a gloved hand dripping blood while the voiceover rumbles that in Alaska, it’s “hunt or starve, kill or be killed”.

That’s all in the first minute.

Welz goes on to describe how the shows report with a straight face that Tanana has experienced 20 wolf-attack deaths in  the past decade (the actual number: 0), and that wolverines routinely threaten humans (ditto).  Then the camera shows both animals being viciously killed.

Welz continues:

Frenetic edits and manic music are used to build drama, authoritative-sounding voiceovers combine with the tightly edited words of the on-screen characters tell how dangerous, vicious or deadly the creatures we’re seeing on screen are. I spot occasions where animal noises seem to have been overdubbed to make them sound scarier. It makes for gripping viewing, but I wondered if Discovery wasn’t betraying its viewers who trust it to deliver reliable, factual TV. As a trained zoologist andfilmmaker, much of what I was seeing didn’t make sense to me.

Take wolverines for example: I lived in Alaska for almost a year and never saw one. They’re extremely shy and avoid humans. Although they’re capable predators of small animals and found in many cold, high-latitude regions of the northern hemisphere, I’d never heard of a wolverine killing a person.

I searched the web and could not find a single documented case of a wolverine even attacking a person anywhere in the world, ever.

To double-check, I emailed Jeff Copeland of the Wolverine Foundation, who told me that “we are not aware of any instance in which a wolverine has killed a human, or even attempted to do so”, which perhaps explains why the wolverines in Yukon Men are doing their desperate best to get away from their human assailants.

Wolves are a lot larger than wolverines, of course. But even though theUS and Canada hold over 60,000 wolves, I found only two records of fatal attacks by wild wolves in these countries in last ten years; onecontroversial case in Saskatchewan, Canada, in 2005, which some experts think was actually a bear attack, and another in Alaska in 2010.

Check out the whole article here.  And when you’re done, you should just cut the cord on your cable system and go outside.  You will not be killed by vicious wild animals.

Meanwhile, maybe Animal Planet should consider re-naming itself Anti-Animal Planet.

3 Responses to “Selling Lies About Wildlife”

  1. You will not be killed by vicious wild animals, but you may be killed by vicious domesticated humans.

  2. Too true. But the murder rate is plummeting. Go outside anyway.

  3. There’s only one thing that matters in this bit from Discovery: Those ratings. Cynopsis reports:

    Discovery’s Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives drew the net its highest ratings ever for Shark Week (4.8 million viewers P2+), but faced criticism afterward from viewers angry that the special’s claims weren’t science-based. “People watch Discovery to explore the ‘what-ifs’ of the world,” network spokesperson Laurie Goldberg tells Cynopsis. The special “used a novel storytelling device to engage imagination and curiosity in a way that was disclosed to audiences throughout the program. We have found that people are open to exploring different ideas and concepts in addition to the more traditional fare that we air that would explain the ratings. As in any entertainment, you aren’t going to always please everyone, but we stand behind all of our content and are proud of it.”

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