There have been numerous cases of alleged animal neglect related to the Animal Planet hit “reality” TV show, Call of the Wildman, according to an investigation by Mother Jones. The show, which has been running for three seasons, is part of Animal Planet’s shift from being an educational outlet to an “entertainment destination,” in order to increase stagnating ratings.
Call of the Wildman is a product of collaboration between Animal Planet and the production company Sharp Entertainment, which specializes in “guided reality,” or heavily-produced (read: staged) television shows. The show’s star, Ernie Brown, Jr., also known as “Turtleman,” is a wildlife “rescuer” from Kentucky who captures wildlife for homeowners and businesses.
One episode involving alleged animal mistreatment featured Turtleman capturing a raccoon in the laundry room of a Kentucky home. After Turtleman dramatically captures and bags the racoon, he and the homeowners “discover” it has babies hidden beneath the house. “Fluffy doesn’t have rabies, she’s got babies!” he exclaims. According to James West of Mother Jones:
With much hammy suspense, Turtleman carries the caged mother around like a metal detector, trying to get her to call to her cubs under the house. As always, there’s a happy ending—mom and cubs safe at a wildlife sanctuary, a family no longer under siege… In fact, as with much of high-drama reality TV, the segment was concocted. Michael O’Bryan, the vet at Broadbent Wildlife Sanctuary, where the raccoons were taken to be filmed after the rescue, told me the “mother raccoon” was actually a male.
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.
In fact, the raccoon cubs were close to death when they were finally brought to the wildlife sanctuary after filming. It was “a race against time” to save them, Karen Bailey, who runs the Georgetown, Kentucky-based non-profit rehabilitation sanctuary told Mother Jones. The animals were given emergency treatment including being incubated and intubated to administer fluids and antibiotics, and even given blood plasma as a “last-ditch effort,” but only two were saved.
In another episode, a wallaby was transported across state lines without a transportation permit. Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) told West that transporting the wallaby across state lines without a permit could “violate federal regulations on interstate trafficking of wildlife.” Sources involved in other staged “rescues” felt that the animals involved were only under any stress as a result of being placed in situations to create a storyline for the show. West notes:
Animal Planet and Sharp [Entertainment] admit to staging rescues, but prefer to view their use of animals in a kinder light, arguing that the animals used in the show—many of them rescued by licensed wildlife officers as part of their regular work—might otherwise be euthanized. Call of the Wildman gives them another chance.
Sharp says it’s against their policy to hire people to trap animals. But my production sources say that the show didn’t happen to come into the possession of rescued animals just in time for these elaborate setups: It actively sought specific species to be placed on sets and chased by Turtleman, in scenes that sacrificed the well-being of the animals for entertainment. Records pertaining to trapping and transport procured by Mother Jones confirm the practice of commissioning people to hunt for animals, and paying for their services.
Among others, additional cases of alleged neglect include a drugged zebra. In a Texas-based episode, Turtleman tackles a zebra to the ground and wrestles around on top of it. The zebra was obtained through the Franklin Drive Thru Safari, an animal park run by Jason Clay. Clay denies that the zebra was administered sedatives in order to film the scene, although Animal Planet and Sharp confirmed to Mother Jones that the animal was drugged, but said it “happened behind their backs.”
Sources involved in the production said the zebra seemed “woozy” during the filming and could barely walk. During the episode, Turtleman pursues the zebra (which has supposedly escaped from its fenced-in yard) in a pickup truck, brandishing a lasso, and eventually corners and tackles the frightened animal to the ground. Not surprisingly, the animal would have been extremely stressed under such circumstances. “They sedated it, to get it to be less crazy,” a production source told West.
“It’s a damn bullshit show,” Clay, the owner of the animal park, reportedly said. “You know it, and I know it. It’s just entertainment, cheap entertainment. It gives everybody a job or something to do.” As owner of the Franklin Drive Thru Safari, Clay is licensed under the federal regulations for animal exhibitors, which state that “drugs, such as tranquilizers, shall not be used to facilitate, allow, or provide for public handling of animals, and that handling of animals should not cause trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort,” Mother Jones reports.
Animal Planet, an 11-year-old wildlife channel owned by Discovery Communications, began “shedding its cute and cuddly image” in 2008, according to a New York Times report. The channel’s prime-time ratings reportedly began decreasing in 2007.
In 2008, the Times reported that the new Animal Planet would “emphasize predation programming (a friendlier term for animal death action), pet shows and immersive storytelling.” Marjorie Kaplan, who became general manager of Animal Planet in 2007, told the Times that the channel had become “unimportant to everyone” because it was a natural history channel “defined by a voice of God narrator.”