Discovery Channel’s Crush Videos

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Discovery Channel’s Crush Videos

By Michael Mountain, Zoe: It's Our Nature
October 2010

“The only animal I know of that kills just for its own entertainment is us.”

I’m struggling to understand the difference between what you see on the Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild show and what you see on any other kind of “crush” video.

In his column for Zoe this month, Jonathan Balcombe describes coming across a show on the Discovery Channel where the star, Bear Grylls, pulls a rattlesnake out from under a bush and proceeds to smash its head in with a rock.

I always thought Discovery was one of the better TV brands. Many of the series they put on, like Planet Earth (produced by the BBC), provide breathtaking views of our planet and the animals. The websites they’ve acquired like Treehugger and Petfinder do good for animals and their subsidiary Animal Planet has many worthwhile shows. Discovery is also about to launch another major series with the iconic David Attenborough, who will be making fossils as fascinating as everything else he’s ever explored.

So I’ve tended to forgive Discovery the kind of wildlife shows that focus on scenes of animals attacking and fighting each other. I figured that if these scenes help to keep a younger male audience involved, it’s an acceptable trade-off for the other good shows the network puts on.

But no longer. Not after reading Balcombe’s column this month about Discovery’s show Man vs. Wild.

After describing the stoning of the rattlesnake, Balcombe mentions hearing from other viewers that in another episode, Grylls catches a fish and bites its head off. I wanted to confirm this, so I went online … and found more, much more. The first video I came across shows Grylls netting a harmless, small snake in a marsh, holding it up to the camera, biting off its head and eating the body.

The next one finds him in a rainforest, where he and his crew have just come across a large boa constrictor. Standing next to the boa, he breathlessly tells the audience that this animal can squeeze the life out of you. So he picks her up by the tail and, dangling her head on the ground, clubs her to death. End of segment.

I’ve seen a lot of bad things done to animals, but this is among the worst. I can’t get it out of my head. The thing I keep asking myself is: How is this any different from any of the other crush videos that are considered so disgustingly, so gratuitously cruel that Congress passed a law banning their sale? (The law they’d passed made news earlier this year when the Supreme Court ruled that it violated First Amendment rights. So a new version has been making its way through Congress.)

The crush videos that Congress moved against typically show animals being trodden on by supposedly sexy women in high heels. People buy and watch these scenes because they get a thrill out of it. And now, on Discovery, people get to watch a fit-looking, sometimes bare-chested, young man clubbing helpless animals to death – also simply to entertain his audience. Presumably the viewers get a thrill out of seeing him do this.

Somebody, please explain to me the difference. Why is one of these scenes the source of an uproar that has Congress racing to pass a law that will pass muster with the Supreme Court, while the other is considered acceptable entertainment on a premier family TV channel?

In his column, Balcombe notes the irony of Grylls telling his audience that snakes can be dangerous. Who exactly is being a danger to whom? Like many other animals used in wildlife shows, the rattlesnake who gets smashed with a rock was likely bought from a dealer and placed under the bush for the sole purpose of being killed for entertainment. It’s standard practice in “nature” shows, Balcombe explains. And the same probably went for the boa. Camera crews don’t have the time or budget to wait around or go searching for the animals they want to film. And boas aren’t looking for publicity.

Predator animals kill because they have to survive. It’s not easy for them. The animals they catch are usually the weak, the sick or the old, and the whole web of life is strengthened by their presence. Predators don’t have the time or energy to kill for fun.

The only animal I know of that kills just for its own entertainment is us. And one of the only places I can watch innocent creatures being gratuitously killed for kicks is Discovery.

In correspondence with Balcombe, Discovery’s PR people explained their rationale as being “maintaining the integrity of our network.”

Exactly what integrity would that be?