This post was originally published on my new Scientific American blog, Overthinking It
Dear Animal Planet:
All monsters are not created equal. We make monsters out of the minuscule, and even monsters out of nothing. You do both.
I write to you because I am a fan. Particularly I am addicted to your show River Monsters. It’s beautifully filmed, it’s hosted by someone with actual credentials, and above all it’s exciting in a way that almost no other show about animals is. River Monsters presents us with a genuinely astounding look at what patrols the world’s freshwater. We all know the giants and grotesques that occupy the oceans, but to see a 100-pound, crocodile-toothed Goliath Tiger fish on the other end of host Jeremy Wade’s line is breathtaking.
River Monsters has everything a great monster story needs—suspense, fear, excitement, fascination—and it can capitalize on these feelings because the monsters actually exist. The show emphasizes science, reason, and good old-fashioned detective work to bring us face to face with these forgotten—or simply unknown—fish. It’s gasp-worthy science commutation.
But for all the good things I could say about the show, I write to you now because of its major failure—taking up the torch and pitchfork as if these amazing animals truly were abominations. They are not.
Here is a list of the descriptive words you chose to use in episode titles for River Monsters: killer, man-eater, assassins, flesh-eaters, demon, death ray, horror, predator, mutilator, flesh ripper, chainsaw predator, electric executioner, slayer, mauler, face ripper, killer torpedo, slasher. I understand that the show takes unexplained deaths and attacks and investigates them, but you are turning these typically harmless fish into actual monsters.
And the gruesome re-enactments do the same. An ample use of fake blood, snappy jump cuts of people drowning, screaming, and dying fill each episode. In reality, the fish that Wade catches are relatively ambivalent towards humans, and cause fewer deaths than man’s best friend. The show often contorts interesting stories of unexamined animals in our rivers and lakes into fiction. River Monsters becomes the angry mob hunting Frankenstein.
Ratings are important (considering that River Monsters is among your most successful shows), which is why I suspect that you insert so much disturbing imagery and mythologizing into the show—it keeps it exciting. But you do a disservice to these amazing animals. To his credit, Jeremy Wade is incredibly concerned for the well-being of these fish. He uses low-damage fishing gear, makes sure each fish he catches is nursed back to health before releasing them, and has, on at least one occasion, flat out refused to turn a fish over to be killed and eaten. However, each time you put the word “killer” or “man-eater” or “face–ripper” in the same sentence as these fish, you create false fear.
This is not just a gripe about terminology or framing, bad communication could really hurt these animals. Look at what turning a fish into an actual monster has done to sharks. Look at this infographic comparing how many people sharks kill each year and how many sharks people kill in just one hour. If anything, at least to the sharks, we are the monsters.
I don’t want to see a legion of fisherman descend on the Congo or Amazon rivers to wipe out tiger fish, or any other animal, out of misplaced fear. Each time River Monsters decides to characterize a fish as a “flesh ripping chainsaw mauling atomic assassin,” the possibility grows. Don’t turn magnificent creatures into mythological horrors.
And don’t turn mythological horrors into real creatures.
I’m afraid I can’t speak highly of your track record when it comes to presenting evidence-based programming, considering that Finding Bigfoot never finds, and won’t ever find, Bigfoot. But never has it been worse than with Mermaids: The Body Found and the upcoming Mermaids: The New Evidence.
Cryptozoology persists precisely because there is no evidence for these creatures. If we actually found Bigfoot or mermaids, they would be studied, cataloged, and brought into the wide swath of biological knowledge. Bigfoot does not exist because there would be evidence left behind—hair, feces, bones, kills, offspring, a carcass—if it did. Considering how many expeditions have attempted to find this evidence and have come up short, in spite of the Bigfoot hunters who claim these creatures number in the thousands, we can effectively rule Bigfoot out. Admittedly, it’s hard to criticize the search for mermaids in the same way. We only recently captured the fabled giant squid on camera. But the difference between these sea monsters is that the squid, prowling the depths off Japan, leaves evidence behind (beaks, tentacles, whole carcasses).
I expect your new show, Mermaids: The New Evidence, to be a grand argument from ignorance, as was the last installment. There is a guy who found some strange stuff and doesn’t know what it is, therefore mermaids. Not to mention that the “aquatic ape hypothesis,” the idea the show uses to materialize mermaids, doesn’t survive any critique.
Animal Planet, you are chasing after an ethereal monster, and giving airtime to the doomed pursuit. Meanwhile on River Monsters, a good show with actual science content, you are slowly turning mostly harmless animals into real monsters to be feared and maybe killed. Once you begin conflating the tiger fish with mermaids, you have lost your way.
Please, I write you to ask not to blur the line between real and fake for the sake of entertainment. Science communicators have a hard enough time as it is setting the record straight and I genuinely like River Monsters. I don’t want to see mermaids garner the same kind of attention that real, amazing animals do. But sadly they will, as long as you keep mythologizing everything with a fin.
If you reach into the mists of pseudoscience just to pull out some good ratings, while at the same time demonizing some of the most astounding subjects of biology I have ever seen on the end of a fishing line, it won’t be long until the only monsters out there will be us.
I received an email from the host of River Monsters, biologist Jeremy Wade, who wanted to respond personally to my article. I have published it below in full:
Kyle, thank you for your piece, which raises very important points, which I would like the opportunity to address.
As a former teacher, my intention with the programs is to educate: to make people aware of these creatures — and to encourage them to care about them.
But as a former advertising copywriter, I also know that you can’t get any message across unless you first have your audience’s attention. (Unlike all those admirable “blue chip” natural history programs, we’re not preaching to the converted, but reaching out to a very wide and diverse audience.) Hence the episode titles and the dramatized reconstructions of people being dragged under the water etc. This taps into everybody’s hard-wired fascination with predators, the legacy of being descended from ancestors who paid attention to dangerous things in the environment.
The re-enactments are of incidents that people tell us about. Sometimes, as is the nature of fishermen’s tales, the story might be exaggerated or it might have mutated in the telling, but generally there’s a substantial element of truth. And the fact is, the fish we feature ARE potentially dangerous to people — although the chances of falling foul of them are usually very small, a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
So people should have a healthy fear of these fish — in certain circumstances. But this is not the same thing as demonizing them. The fact that I put the fish back into the water conveys a very strong message, which most of the audience instinctively understand. I say this because out of all the hundreds of mails I’ve received, only a handful have been along the lines of: “Why did you put that man-eating fish back in the water?”
So while the programs do have a theme of fear, it’s a positive message: instead of hiding from the thing you fear, or trying to destroy it, you work to understand it and through understanding find that you can live with it.
I think Wade makes a lot of good points here, and acknowledges mine. I especially like his last point–that he is revealing these fish so that we don’t have to fear them. Hearing it from the host, it does make me think more highly of the show. Now if I can just get in touch with the Mermaids producers…