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.