I remember when Animal Planet was good.
As a kid, I spent hours watching “Orangutan Island,” “Big Cat Diary” and “The Most Extreme” on channel 184, the Dish Network station that broadcasted Animal Planet at the time.
I would watch with bated breath as baby meerkats faced off against desert scorpions, their heads bobbing up and down, darting forward to strike a swift blow and then leaping backward as their siblings took over the offense. I watched African wild dogs glide seamlessly across the terrain, hunting and tracking their prey as a group. These images were seared into my brain, leaving lasting impressions on my younger self.
Animal Planet was more powerful than any class I have ever taken in shaping my perception of the world around me — not because of any particular information it imparted, but because of the way it instilled a sense of wonder, enthusiasm and appreciation for animals and the outdoors as a whole.
But these days, when you click on the Animal Planet channel, all you see are people.
Where there were once stories depicting the lives of wild animals, there are now shows focusing solely on contractors building fish tanks, cops penalizing illegal hunting and veterinarians treating wounded wildlife. While I recognize that these shows are important in their own ways, I personally do not find them particularly interesting.
Animal Planet was my portal to other worlds, ecosystems and habitats. It was the Magic School Bus that took me on adventures and showed me the close-up, personal lives of animals I had never seen before.
Needless to say, I didn’t watch Animal Planet to learn about humans. I watched it to learn about animals, leaving the world of humans behind me and entering new environments through the television screen a few hours at a time.
Nonetheless, I recognize that the process of filming and producing any television show relies on humans, and there is no way to exclude humans from matters involving other animals. Additionally, failing to acknowledge the role of humans in the environment simplifies situations and projects incomplete versions of reality, as it undermines the interconnectedness and complexity of the relationship between the natural and human worlds.
I haven’t outgrown my animal phase, and honestly, I hope I never do. But at the same time, I realize that having the time and opportunity to develop a sense of appreciation for animals involves at least some level of privilege.
Although I wasn’t able to actually interact with many wild animals growing up, I still had a TV and my parents paid for access to Animal Planet. I could “waste time” sitting for hours a day, immersed in the lives of faraway animals from the comfort of my family’s couch in Bend, Oregon.
Despite my personal affinity for nature documentaries, I want to think more carefully about the shows I watched when I was younger. At the end of the day, filmmaking is generally a moneymaking venture, so it is important to ask this: Who are the funds benefitting? Who is being left out? Whose contributions go uncredited? Are young people still getting exposure to wildlife through media, and if so, what impact does this exposure have?
Nature documentaries make a spectacle out of both nature and animals. As easy as it is to get caught up in the magic of these types of shows while celebrating and learning about wildlife and natural areas, it is equally, if not more, valuable to think critically about the real-world impacts of these shows. More than 9 million people watched the first episode of Planet Earth II. So what? What impact did that really have on humanity and on the world?
Large audiences watch nature shows, yet relatively little changes in our relation to nature and our anthropogenic contributions to climate change continue to intensify. Are we as nature show viewers in some ways complicit bystanders? Eager onlookers?
A scene from “David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet” comes to mind: a beautiful shot of an enormous tree; its trunk immeasurably wide; its branches towering overhead. A chainsaw, almost comically small in comparison to the tree it works upon, whirrs to life and begins the slow process of felling the giant tree.
Seeing that infuriated me. Did that tree even need to get cut down? Or did the director just want a dramatic scene for the film?
Regardless of the reason, that tree was alive. It probably supported countless other lives, offering real and tangible services to the organisms nearby, unlike the fleeting, glitzy take on nature provided to humans by nature media. Yes, these documentaries and shows are inspiring, and yes, they are the reason why I care about the environment today. But how important is filming, watching and appreciating nature, really, when it comes to saving our planet?
Companies know how to package up nature in a way that makes people feel like they care in order to make a profit. But the mere act of watching a documentary alone isn’t helping. Nature media is stupefying. We get transfixed by images and stories of faraway animals, but it seems that we often become blind to the problems that are right in front of us in the process.