Animal TV shows coming back
By Mike Hughes
What's the bad news from the animal world? Right now, giant pythons are crawling through Florida; they frighten people and swallow animals.
"Pythons have been known to eat everything from small rodents to birds to an adult deer," said Fred Kaufman, whose PBS series "Nature" eyes them Sunday. "Even a bobcat is not safe."
Then what's the good news? Here are two answers:
• Those pythons usually ignore humans; and
• Wildlife shows are making a comeback.
There's already one channel focusing on animals (Animal Planet), with another (Nat Geo Wild) arriving this spring. Animal shows pop up on PBS, on the National Geographic Channel and on Discovery – which has a huge one coming up.
That's "Life," an 11-week series debuting March 21. "This special is epic in (showing) fascinating behaviors," said Clark Bunting, the Discovery Channel president.
All of those help nudge wildlife shows back to the spotlight.
There were plenty of them in TV's early days. Lowell Thomas was showing his travel films in the 1950s; National Geographic started its specials in '63. "Wild Kingdom," "Animal World" and the Jacques Cousteau specials all started in '68.
"Explorer" (which has been on five cable channels) and the Discovery Channel both began 25 years ago. They started pleasantly; lately, however, cable has taken a harder-edged approach:
• The National Geographic Channel (launched in 2001) ranges from prisons to border patrols. "Less than 5 percent of our prime time content has wildlife," said Steve Schiffman, the general manager.
• Animal Planet (started in 1996) has also been less benign lately. Its biggest ratings hit is "River Monsters," in which Jeremy Wade catches fierce creatures. "They are large, they are toothy .... The child inside every adult is fascinated by things which look like living dinosaurs," Wade said.
Even "Nature," a sweet-spirited PBS show since 1982, sometimes scares us. It does that Feb. 21.
"Today, there are thousands of unwelcome and deadly Burmese pythons living in the Everglades," Kaufman said. Some were set free by owners who couldn't handle them, he said; others were freed when hurricanes belted warehouses. "The Everglades are similar to their native Asian habitat, and (they) have moved into their new home with a vengeance."
Florida has about 10,000 of them, herpetologist Shawn Heflick said. This snake "is perfectly designed to do what it does grab hold of its prey ... throw a couple of coils around it and then swallow it."
Humans rarely are harmed; alligators with "250-plus million years of evolution in that ecosystem" still rule the Everglades. Lesser creatures, however, could be endangered.
That sort of problem people buying pets they can't handle extends beyond pythons. Animal Planet has an upcoming show ("Fatal Attractions") devoted to pets that attack. "There are an enormous number of people who are keeping venomous snakes in their home (or) chimpanzees, big cats," said Winston Card, an herpetologist.
Not all pets go bad, of course. Nat Geo Wild will include Casey Anderson and his 900-pound friend Brutus a grizzly who enjoys playing tricks on other bears. "He's a comedian," Anderson said.
There's room for all of that from comic bears to killer pythons as TV expands its animal kingdom.