Beware of the Gonzo Nature-TV Presenter

Sept. 4 is the fifth anniversary of the death of Steve Irwin, the Australian wildlife presenter fatally speared by a stingray's barb while filming on the Great Barrier Reef. His death was a shock, but its manner surprised nobody. There was no dangerous animal Irwin wouldn't provoke and manhandle for TV.
Five years on, the pet-and-pester approach he pioneered has become the standard way for nature programs to produce cheap dramatic footage — reality TV with claws. Turn on any channel and you'll see Irwin lookalikes hassling animals. They declaim their love of nature, while unwittingly recording our dysfunctional relationship with it, teaching our children to both fear and subjugate creatures already pushed to the brink of extinction.
Irwin's boyhood inspiration was the British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough. Often whispering so as not to disturb his subjects, Attenborough reverentially reveals the wonders of the natural world and our place in it. He doesn't set out to demonstrate his mastery over animals.
Today's presenters are different. Animal Planet's slogan is "Surprisingly Human." It should be "Depressingly Human," since it chronicles our species' conflict with almost every other. A South African herpetologist called Donald Schultz, who fronts Wild Recon, is a self-styled adrenaline junkie on a pseudo-scientific mission. He collects snake venom and other animal fluids "that could yield life-altering scientific discoveries." In Sri Lanka, he draws blood from a tranquilized young rogue elephant "so that researchers can study his hormones." But what discoveries those unnamed researchers make — or what qualifies a snake expert to draw blood from the world's largest land mammal — is never explained. What we learn is this: animals are vicious, so humans are justified in using any means to subdue them. Schultz describes the drugged and terrified elephant as "five tons of aggression."
(See TIME's top 10 heroic animals.)
This message is driven home by more recent shows, such as Man-Eating Super Snake ("No one is safe in South Florida") and Nature's Deadliest ("Size doesn't matter to the world's most dangerous creatures"). I've given up on finding a show that teaches us how to live in harmony with animals. Instead, we invade their habitats and, when they defend themselves, we brand them violent.
This is the apparent strategy of Animal Planet's Into the Pride. A pride of lions known for "aggression toward people" must learn to grow accustomed to ecotourists at a Namibian reserve — or else. "If they don't calm down," we're told, "they will be destroyed." Calm down? They're wild animals. They're calm enough when you leave them alone. But try telling that to the show's frat-boy host, a Canadian animal trainer called Dave Salmoni. He approaches on an all-terrain vehicle and sets about acclimatizing the lions to humans — by repeatedly aggravating them. "Right now, they're problem cats," Salmoni explains, "because of their perception of what humans are." In this case, a whooping doofus on a quad bike.
Even National Geographic ("Inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888") can't leave animals be. An episode of its Monster Fish shows American biologist Zeb Hogan wrestling giant South American arapaima into a man-made pond where anglers pay to catch them. This is conservation?
(See the top 12 unlikely animal friendships.)
All this poses a dilemma for parents. Where do children form an appreciation of nature? My father took me to zoos, which I loved. But today even the best zoos discomfit many parents, this one included. So children must turn to TV, where they find the bloody dramatized attacks of Discovery Channel's recent Shark Week, or a show like Swamp Brothers, in which Florida reptile trader Robbie Keszey restrains wild animals under the guise of (he says) teaching people to respect "their rights to this place we call earth." My son won't be watching him.
Is there a connection between TV's obsession with subjugating animals and our capacity to destroy them and their habitats? Possibly. We demonized sharks and were soon slaughtering millions for their fins every year. Through nature TV, we're now demonizing all wild creatures to make us feel better about precipitating their extinction. "People come first," says Schultz as he pursues that elephant, and for once he's right. On this planet, only rogue humans are allowed to roam free.
This article originally appeared in the August 22, 2011 issue of TIME Europe."

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
I agree with a lot that the article says, but disagree with some of it. The article completely misrepresents Steve Irwin.

Firstly, he wasn't by any means the person who "pioneered" the aggressive form of wildlife TV programs. There are programs from the 70s that make Irwin look like a monk.

Secondly, Irwin was actually very respectful and in awe of the species he dealt with. He was very knowledgeable in natural history and his love for animals was immense. His contributions to conservation are unparalleled in many ways. If the author had a less jaded and more fact-based perspective about Irwin, he'd know that his show was ALL about teaching people "how to live in harmony with animals". To people who have a superficial knowledge about wildlife, it may seem logical to equate his demonstrations for TV with aggression towards animals. To a wildlife biologist, things would appear a lot different.

The big problem that conservationists deal with is ignorance- this ignorance is aided by a reactionary repulsion towards all forms of interaction with wild animals. This is not useful. Let me give a few examples. People remember Irwin using his hands to subdue crocs for transportation around the zoo that he managed for reasons such as cleaning the croc ponds, bringing them together to mate etc. He always took care to cause less stress to the animals, and his methods were the least invasive in such situations compared to others I've seen, for example with alligator wrangling in Florida (much of which seems to be done just for fun). People remember him feeding the crocs by dangling food till they chased after it and snapped their jaws shut as he dropped the chicken/fish at the last minute, but if you weren't paying attention it could look like he was showing off and just teasing the crocs. If you listened and observed, what he was doing was triggering their hunting predatory instinct, getting them in the mood to eat, and giving them the nearest thing they had to hunting in the wild. People see the few crocs he had in the zoo to promote wildlife awareness, but forget about the many he saved in the wild, and the many he released from captivity. Irwin, more than anytheig else, loved seeing a beautiful full-grown crocodile out in its natural habitat.

The episodes where Irwin wrestles with crocs are sensationalist and were repeated often on TV. The episode where he cried like a baby when the croc he rescued years ago, Sue, died of old age, no one remembers (his daughter's middle name is after this croc). We forget the episode in which he took care of the hatchlings when the mother croc was not around. There are many many such examples where you see Irwin's absolute love for and respect for the animals his show was about. The times when he pounced on wild snakes to demonstrate them for an ignorant audience, always taking care not to harm them, are well-remembered. The many times that he stopped his truck on the outback to pick up a sunbathing bearded dragon or a slow moving snake and place it on the side of the road away from danger, are forgotten. People forget that he founded "Wildlife Warriors Worldwide and International Crocodile Rescue, both organizations that do exceptional conservation work. I suggest people read up on his environmental activism, including what well-respected environmentalists and conservation biologists have said about him:
The author of the article compares Irwin unfavorably to David Attenborough, in order to smear him. Attenborough himself had a different take on Irwin. The wiki article says this: "Attenborough reciprocated by praising Irwin for introducing many to the natural world, saying, "He taught them how wonderful and exciting it was, he was a born communicator."

Irwin's death was a freak accident, as many experts who reviewed the case have concluded, but it fits the populist narrative that he got what he deserved for messing with those damn wild animals.

Lastly, the author tries to draw a causal relationship between TV shows like Irwin's and the destruction of wildlife. He uses the example of demonizing sharks and claims it has led to increased exploitation for shark-fin soup. This is COMPLETELY FALSE. Sharks were demonized in the 70s by Hollywood, not by Animal Planet. I just read a report not so long ago that showed that demand for shark fin soup has increased many fold in the last year, because of increased affluence of the Chinese. The #1 cause of shark exploitation is superstitious beliefs about shark-fin soup and the association with status when it is served at important functions. TV shows like on Animal Planet actually try to make people a little more aware about the scale of the problem. Of course, some modern shows may indeed have a negative effect. But if the author wasn't so one sided in his attack, he would have seen the facts for what they are. Steve Irwin's entire life was dedicated to conservation of wildlife, and he has done far more for that than most conservationists. There are many episodes in which Irwin goes after poachers, weeps at the destruction they cause, and talks at length about how we can address the problems. His show has documented his work with conservationists in Indonesia, Africa and South America. Moreover, the show was sensationalist, and there was plenty that Irwin did behind the scenes that was not documented for TV.

Today I prefer watching shows in the tradition of the great David Attenborough like Planet Earth and Life, both of which I own, but let's ask for the evidence when judging Irwin for what his show did for creating awareness about wildlife and generating concern for habitat loss.

"when it comes to explaining the mysteries of nature, Australian Steve Irwin, TV's real-life Crocodile Dundee, is more effective than Sir David Attenborough, says a team of academics.

A new study by Nottingham University sociologists claims that light-hearted programmes about dangerous reptiles and big cats offer better explanations of the complexities of evolution than "educational" shows such as BBC1's Blue Planet.

Far from dumbing down the subtleties of their subjects, it argues, "cheap and cheerful" series use their adventure-style formats to explore the full randomness of nature.

In contrast, supposedly more highbrow, "blue chip" programmes such as Blue Planet and Wild Africa dictate simplified "factual" accounts that owe more to creationism than to serious science. By employing a "Voice of God" approach, the report says, they convey the view that modern scientists are united in an outdated belief that the wonders of nature have been "planned" by a higher authority."
"Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian"
~ J.B.S.Haldane, on being asked to falsify evolution.
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