Moving Pictures June 2011

The Beast Within

The secret formula of Animal Planet: it’s all about us.
Katja Heinemann/Animal Planet

The heart of a racing pigeon in full flight beats 600 times per minute. The heart of Mike Tyson, watching his pigeons come sailing home to their rooftop coop in Jersey City, beats … well, we don’t know how fast it beats. But it beats, baby. Even when the birds are late, or uncooperative—even when, turning and turning in the widening gyre, the pigeon cannot hear the former heavyweight champion of the world—his face shines with gladness. There aren’t too many TV shows about joy, but Animal Planet’s recent miniseries Taking On Tyson (in which we watched as Tyson, a lifelong pigeon fancier, turned his birds into lean racers, and himself into “a better man”) was one of them. The zooming aerial perspectives, the gulfs of heavenly light over smokestack New Jersey, and above all the sight of Iron Mike in the biblical moment of pigeon release, arms spread, palms up, an offering … It fed the soul. Also quite nourishing were the technical debates, like the one between pigeon trainer Vinnie Torre and Tyson’s friend and coop caretaker Junie Roman: To worm, or not to worm, a pigeon—and if so, how often? Voices were raised. “So, you don’t worm your birds?” asked Junie heatedly. “I worm them,” replied Vinnie. “When they have worms.

Turned on by Taking On Tyson, earlier this spring I immersed myself in the variegated programming of Animal Planet. As buds popped outside the window and vernally intoxicated squirrels chased their tails, I watched Animal Cops: Miami, Infested!, Fatal Attractions (exotic pets attacking their owners), and Yellowstone: Battle for Life. I watched and watched. Love the honey-colored Labrador, revile the giant stingray: this is the spectrum of human response to animals, more or less, and wherever along it you care to place your finger, you’ll find an Animal Planet show. This network has been thinking about how to televise animals, animal life, the animal kingdom, ever since its launch in 1996. It’s a philosophical question, as we shall see.

VIDEO: James Parker shares scenes from Animal Planet shows like Meerkat Manor and It's Me or the Dog, as well as the anthropomorphic children's classic Watership Down.

A key scene in the 2005 documentary Grizzly Man: Timothy Treadwell, rogue naturalist filmmaker and doomed Doolittle to the wild bears of Alaska’s Katmai National Park (one of which eventually ate him), comes across the body of a freshly killed fox. The lens of his video camera dilates with grief, and—“Oh God!”—a sigh of cosmic plaint goes up. “I love you,” he tells the tiny carcass, in his kindergarten singsong. “I love you and I don’t understand. It’s a painful world!” And then, in voice-over, we hear the flat, contrarian tones of Grizzly Man director Werner Herzog. He sounds, as always, like a dead fish reading from the book of Revelation. “Here,” says Herzog, “I differ with Treadwell. He seemed to ignore the fact that in nature, there are predators. I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”

Elephants, bonobos, and bottlenose dolphins are all capable of recognizing themselves in the mirror. Pigeons too. (I learned that from Taking On Tyson!) Man, on the other hand—the exile in creation—seems incapable of not recognizing himself, everywhere he looks. Unstoppably, he projects his anthropology, whatever that anthropology might be. If you’re Timothy Treadwell, you look at a bear and see your old friend Mr. Chocolate. If you’re Werner Herzog, you see a 1,000-pound anarch. And if you’re a programmer for Animal Planet, you see an opportunity.

Character, human character, expressed through relationship with bird, beast, or fish—that’s the Animal Planet method. Mike Tyson, ex-maniac, stands on the rooftop like an enraptured goblin: his pigeons will save him. Ann Bryant, protagonist of the show Blonde vs. Bear, was a near-recluse until summoned in a dream to protect the wild-bear population of Lake Tahoe. Now every summer, as the ignorant holiday hordes descend, Bryant goes into overdrive. Black-clad and sunglassed like a blond Roy Orbison, she chases bears from beneath houses and pursues them through backyards, woofing at them or dinging them with her paintball gun, as she shepherds them back to the safety of the forest. People get in her way—citizens, sheriffs, representatives from the Department of Fish and Game—and she yells at them. It’s all a bit hectic. Bryant’s life is full of spirituality and her house is full of animals. She calls her assistant on the phone: “David, we’re done there, and I’m going to church.” “I’ll get the dog and the porcupine, and I’ll see you in a minute,” replies David. Cut to Bryant at an open-air service with her friends Bitsy the Bulldog and Martin the Porcupine. Martin looks bemused, out of it, his long quills leaning drunkenly.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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