As I've written before, I have a major thing for animal shows. Animal Planet's Call of the Wildman is a little broad and manufactured for my tastes (I like my animal stories with DIGNITY), but damned if that stopped me from watching ten episodes in a row in a lazy Sunday marathon the other week. The antics of Ernie "Turtleman" Brown, Jr. and his pal, Neal—whose "job" appears to be to follow Turtleman around and describe everything that he does, while never, ever helping—are pretty much pure entertainment. (I like to pretend that Turtleman is actually a straight-laced lawyer named Barry J. Turtleman, Esq. who just likes chasing possums on the weekends.) Call of the Wildman is also, according to a new investigative report by Mother Jones, cruel, exploitative, and potentially illegal.
It's a long, in-depth piece that indicts not just Call of the Wildman but, by extension, the way our reality TV sausage gets made in general. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few excerpts.
The animals that Turtleman "rescues" are planted by subcontracted handlers:
Three sources involved with the show confirmed that producers typically procure animals from farms or trappers and put them in fake rescue situations, on sets tailored to specification.
Sharp producers even go so far as to make fake animal droppings using Nutella, Snickers bars, and rice.
"It was part of my job to call around people to trap animals at the direction of Sharp," says Jamie, who worked on the show. (Jamie's name has been changed. Sharp Entertainment requires many employees and participants to sign confidentiality agreements that call for as much as $1 million in damages if breached.) "It's 100 percent fake," said a second production source.
A zebra that Turtleman "wrestles" was sedated for filming:
Production sources told me that the zebra seemed woozy during filming; it could barely walk. Animal Planet and Sharp obtained the zebra from the Franklin Drive Thru Safari, an animal park run by a businessman named Jason Clay. In a phone interview, Clay confirmed that he supplied the zebra, but denied using sedatives. Clay is licensed under the federal regulations for animal exhibitors, which specify that "drugs, such as tranquilizers, shall not be used to facilitate, allow, or provide for public handling of the animals," and that handling of animals should not cause trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort.
Despite Clay's denial, Animal Planet and Sharp confirmed to Mother Jones that the zebra was drugged before filming, but they say it happened behind their backs. However, Jamie and other sources say that the crew was aware of the zebra's sedation during filming, especially since the animal nearly fell over several times. "I heard about the zebra being almost unusable," says another source.
And sometimes the animals end up dead:
By the time three orphaned raccoons arrived for emergency care at the Kentucky Wildlife Center in April 2012, "they were emaciated," says Karen Bailey, who runs the nonprofit rehab clinic set in the sunny thoroughbred country just outside of Georgetown, in central Kentucky. "They were almost dead."
...These weren't just any raccoons. They were the stars of one of the highest-rating episodes of Call of the Wildman, the hit Animal Planet reality TV show.
When cubs are in such bad shape, Bailey says, "It's a race against time." The animals were incubated and intubated, fed fluids and antibiotics. As a last-ditch effort, Bailey administered blood plasma and managed to save two of the raccoons—"a miracle."
Dead action. :(
Nobody in 2014 expects "reality TV" to be 100% real, but I don't think it's unreasonable to hope that television producers in the business of handling animals will adhere to basic, legal standards of humane animal handling. This is gross, Animal Planet. Fix it.