Originally published in 2006, this still pertinent article is republished on the anniversary of Steve Irwin’s untimely death.
Steve Irwin was a wonderfully passionate and well-meaning advocate for wildlife. He was a good person who inspired millions to have an increased appreciation for the importance of wildlife, especially reptiles. But he sometimes stepped over the line by inadvertently encouraging people to get too close to wild animals and by provoking animals into behaviors likely never to have occurred if no cameras had been rolling.
Steve Irwin’s tragic death from a stingray’s defensive attack calls attention to an on-going problem with wildlife programs—they encourage people to get too close to and impose on wildlife.
There’s no doubt Irwin, widely known as the Crocodile Hunter, was a committed advocate for wildlife. His dedication to conservation shone through vividly in his 1997 autobiography, The Crocodile Hunter, as it did in many of his TV shows, in which he often thrilled audiences by provoking animal attacks.
His fate reminded me of the shockingly gruesome deaths three years ago of amateur filmmaker Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. The double killing by a grizzly made headlines all over the world. Treadwell’s death was not unexpected by those who knew him. He often approached bears, singing to them and even touching them. He camped deliberately in dense bush on bear trails, in violation of Katmai National Park safety guidelines.
Both Irwin and Treadwell got too close to the wildlife they loved and built their careers on performing in close proximity with dangerous wildlife. This posed a threat not only to themselves but to impressionable audience members, often young people yearning to make a mark on the world. Young people will naturally—and foolishly—imitate such charismatic TV personalities.
When performers get too close to wildlife, it can be dangerous for wildlife too. For example, when someone gets mauled or killed by a bear, even though the attack is usually the person’s fault, an outbreak of bear killing commonly ensues. People in bear country become apprehensive and trigger-happy. Following the deaths of Treadwell and Huguenard, two bears were killed by park rangers and others may have been unnecessarily killed as well by people made nervous by press accounts of Treadwell’s death.
We need wildlife shows on television to stimulate public support for the protection of animals from human activity and exploitation. These shows need to be entertaining and attract audiences, but should never harass and even endanger animals and the filmmaker in order to make them entertaining. The intense competition for ratings pushes performers to get as close to the edge as possible in the quest for a bigger audience share.
One example of an irresponsible wildlife show is MTV’s Wildboyz. The hosts have grabbed crocodiles, chased cheetahs, stuck their tongues in a giraffe’s mouth, deliberately let scorpions sting on their bare buttocks, put blood from a recently killed wildebeest on their faces and put antelope droppings in their mouths to see who can spit them the farthest. On the MTV website, one of the hosts talks about his talents for puking, gross stupidity and self-inflicted pain. Wildboyz is wildlife pornography, because it is more about power and violence than about wildlife. It attempts to gratify the desires of an audience at the expense of the well-being of the animals.
There are three fundamental principles that can guide us in making entertaining, safe, informative and responsible films about wildlife. The first is that TV performers should never do anything that might harm an animal. The second is that these performers should never do anything that misinforms or deceives an audience. The third is that a host should never demean an animal by making it into an object of meaningless sensationalism.
People should not get too close to animals in the wild. As Irwin has shown, even experts can get hurt. Moreover, programs that deliberately provoke animal attacks are a disservice to wildlife and to people interested in wildlife, because such programs perpetuate inflated fears about the dangers posed by animals.
Charming and charismatic hosts of wildlife programs on television, while doing some good, sometimes behave in ways that end up hurting the wildlife they love.