Moving Pictures June 2011

The Beast Within

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

Back in the day, Animal Planet had great, gonzo-sounding shows like The Pet Psychic, Total Zoo, You Lie Like a Dog (a game show), and Judge Wapner’s Animal Court. But their viewing figures were a disappointment, and in 2008, to mild fanfare, the channel relaunched itself with a new logo and promises of more “instinctually-charged storytelling” and “visceral, in-the-moment experiences.” There had in fact already been plenty of both—Meerkat Manor, which ran from 2006 to 2008, was the most violent and darkly plotted show on television, a wonderful synthesis of the Treadwell/Herzog dialectic: adorable little mongooses, ripping each other to pieces! Eating rivals’ offspring was a steady theme, as was the necessity of establishing a latrine in enemy territory. The meerkats had names—Flower, Mozart—but their atrocities, solemnized by the narrative voice of Sean Astin (who played Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings), were coolly impersonal. “This is nature at its rawest,” he assured us, as the merciless Nikita disappeared into Mozart’s burrow to assassinate her babies. Strictly business.

Cutesy-poo programming persists on Animal Planet—Must Love Cats, for example, or the crowning inanity of the Puppy Bowl series (dogs gamboling on Astroturf to a sound track of fake cheers). But more in tune with the Planet’s gestalt, its strategy of revelation-via-animals, is something like It’s Me or the Dog. This is a tremendous show. Each episode, dog trainer Victoria Stilwell descends, ponytail swashing, on a household with a fucked-up dog—although of course there are no fucked-up dogs, only fucked-up owners. Generally some displacement or misapplication of love is going on: the woman of the house is spoiling the dog with a desperate ardor, drowning it in libido, while the men stand around like idiots. Claudia’s dog Lily, a bichon frise (small, shrill, white poodle type), is peeing everywhere and chewing the mail. Victoria zeroes in on Danny, Claudia’s husband. “You never walk the dog. Why is that?” Answers Danny: “It’s a girl’s dog I feel stupid walking a girl’s dog. Because it looks like a girl’s dog.”

Another nice thing you can do with animals is hunt them—whack them in their woodlands like Ted Nugent, or haul them writhing from the deep. The presenter-hero of River Monsters, Jeremy Wade, biologist and self-declared “extreme angler,” has a crazed clarity of eye that we associate with the Jackass troupe, but the man is no clown. Narrating his hour-long, rod-and-line battle with the Himantura chaophraya—or giant freshwater stingray—on a river in Thailand, he comes up with Hemingway-esque action prose: “The next bite is a clean take As I race to clip in, something powerful rips out several feet of line … I feel like I’m trying to pull the plug out of the river.” Wade’s purpose is scientific—let’s get a look at this—but also epic. Does he get his stingray? Not quite. Just as he seems about to reel in the monster, as it flounders up boat-side and breaks the surface with its obscene flatness, his rod snaps with a sound like a gunshot. The river replugs itself. Then Wade discovers that he’s torn his right bicep—permanently reducing his strength in that arm, we are informed, “by about 7 percent.”

But I keep coming back to Timothy Treadwell, that axial figure in animal/human relations. Animal Planet does, too: the network recently screened Grizzly Man Diaries—selections from his reams of footage, framed by readings from his journals. There is an absurdity to Treadwell: the silly voice, the abundance of courage, the sense of brittle self-fabrication. And yet here he is in his Diaries, teaching two abandoned bear cubs how to fish.

“And if nature asks us to treat it with humor?” enquired Czeslaw Milosz, introducing a poem by Robert Francis in the anthology A Book of Luminous Things:

If Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, and Rabbit, and his friends-and-relations, if all that humanization is precisely what nature expects from us? In other words, perhaps we are unable to say—to tell her—anything, except ascribing to her sadness, smiles, ominousness, serenity?

What a canny poet Milosz was. Nature unobserved, unsentimentalized, unpolluted with our delusions, is just a bunch of stuff eating itself. Here endeth the lesson of Animal Planet: it’s all about the human. Oh, Homo sapiens. Oh, blessed biped. Oh, you.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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