Beast Master

Chasing a Frisbee is fine and good, but I'd rather be seizing your soft tissue between my powerful incisors: Hound and handler on Animal Planet's 'K-9 to 5'
Courtesy of Animal Planet

Despite the best efforts of taxonomists and PETA activists, we really haven't embraced the idea that our species belongs to the wild kingdom. Perhaps it's an ego thing, perhaps it's a sidestepping -the -ethical -implications -of -the -bacon -double -cheeseburger thing. Whatever it is, when most of us think "animal," Homo sapiens isn't included in the group. The cable channel Animal Planet does little to encourage us to think otherwise.

The programming on Animal Planet would give a dedicated animal-rights ethicist fits for days: It emphasizes the alien otherness of animals, showcases their roles solely in terms of their interactions with humans, and consistently maintains the conceit that animals are nothing like people. Some beasts may come close: There are, for instance, dogs that tend troubled children, to be found--along with forensic (read: corpse) dogs--on the show K-9 to 5. But Animal Planet's fundamental message is that Earth is crawling with things that aren't us.

To be fair, the only program that seems to send disturbing subliminal messages about how scary and intractable animals are is The Most Extreme, which showcases the top animals for a theme like "strength." The program is filled with flavorless factoids: A problem with most animal shows is that they rarely give in to the mischievous or macabre in citing what animals can do, like enthusiastically reporting that "a bear can rip off a full-grown human's head in the time it takes you to pop open a can of Vanilla Coke." Now that would impress upon us that animals are the living embodiment of function determining form. The Most Extreme does a fine job of instilling awe at the diversity of the animal kingdom but keeps the viewer profoundly detached from it.

Part of that could be due to the way the show is shot. Viewers of a certain age will look at the footage of that bear waddling over to a tree--shown for the fourth time in ten minutes--and be reminded of classroom movies shown on actual film projectors. This footage-recycling technique is not unique to The Most Extreme; plenty of shows on Animal Planet rely on repeating the same clips over and over, in slow motion, in soft focus, with different narration. It doesn't matter: By the fifth time you've seen the same lion disembowel the same gazelle, the thrill is gone.

Then again, given the depredations people inflict on animals, erecting narrative barriers between us and the rest of the animal kingdom may not be a bad thing. The Most Extreme may be subliminally disturbing, but Emergency Vets, Animal Cops, and Animal Precinct are openly appalling. Of the three shows, Emergency Vet is the most hazardous to watch if you actually have pets. Although some episodes are damned heartwarming--especially if you've got cast-wearing dogs blissing out over being reunited with their humans--there is a full complement of tragedy. The episode where a distraught owner brought in her dog and discovered that some unknown party had poisoned the animal rivaled King Lear in the annals of tragedy.

Emergency Vets, however, is a dogwalk in the park compared to Animal Cops and Animal Precinct. At least Emergency Vets is peopled, as it were, with humans who have an active interest in the welfare of other animals. Both Animal Cops and Animal Precinct consistently present a depressing scenario: There's a nation of people who starve, beat, or otherwise harm animals, and only a very small group of people to counter that cruelty. The episode titles try to warn you off: "Hungry for Justice" or "Bound by Betrayal" or "A Deprived Life" are par for the course. Although the whole point of these shows is to illustrate that there are folks who make a vocation of protecting animal welfare, viewers can't help noticing that there are a lot of people out there who don't think of animals as actually living at all. Animal abuse is said to be one of the surest markers of a psychologically disturbed child; what Animal Cops says about us on a collective, adult level is frightening to contemplate.


Years from now, the cosmic joke may be on the bastards who don't feed their horses and who leave their dogs tied outside to the cyclone fence during blizzards. By years from now, we're talking millions of years, according to Animal Planet's three-part series The Future Is Wild, which has been airing this summer. (Don't worry if you missed it the first time around; this is a cable channel we're talking about, so the episodes will be running in perpetuity--half a million years, at least). The Future Is Wild asks and answers one simple question: What will animals be like a long time from now when humanity is presumably extinct?

The answer is not pretty, nor are the animals. Although the show does trot out some basic and interesting science--most notably in paleontology and geology--it leaves viewers wondering why on Earth monkeys didn't take over the planet before. There are a lot of unresolved "whys" and "hows" here. Why will fish take to the skies as "flish"? How do they get around the whole gills thing?

However flawed it is, this miniseries is perhaps Animal Planet's proudest achievement. We tend to think of Earth in human terms, but The Future Is Wild shows us the real animal planet--a place where we really aren't among the animals, and they don't seem to miss us at all.

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