The Beast Within

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

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.

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.