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An Open Letter to Animal Planet: Learn The Difference Between Real and Fake Monsters

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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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.

Courtesy of Animal Planet/River Monsters

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.

Dangerous, beautiful, but not a monster. Courtesy of Animal Planet/River Monsters

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.

UPDATE:

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…

Image Credit:

Goliath Tiger Fish and Freshwater Stingray courtesy of Animal Planet

Kyle Hill About the Author: Kyle Hill is a freelance science writer and communicator who specializes in finding the secret science in your favorite fandom. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. KimTWolf 3:30 pm 05/15/2013

    A fantastic article — except for the website it links to to reference “Man’s Best Friend.” That website is the epitome of psuedoscience! It completely discredits the valid and important points that Kyle Hill is making, and ironically that junk website is 10 times worse than “River Monsters.”

    Link to this
  2. 2. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 4:58 pm 05/15/2013

    Thanks for letting me know Kim. I knew that the comparison I was making had statistical backing, but I didn’t know the site I used was so bad.

    Link changed to a study in JAMA from 1998 supporting the same point.

    Glad you liked it, and thanks for the correction!

    Link to this
  3. 3. jonathanseer 6:17 pm 05/15/2013

    Kyle Hill hits the nail on the head regarding the show.

    Kyle Hill pathetically misses the mark in his stupid comparison between dogs and the dangers they do pose vs a vs these creatures.

    Man is the deadliest animal on the planet to every living creature and to himself.

    There is no need to drag another creature’s name through the mud to make his point.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Mythusmage 10:13 pm 05/15/2013

    Substantially agree with your point, but I must disagree vis a vis bigfoot.

    Yes I know the most recent revelation regarding DNA studies has serious problems. Dr. Ketchum (who made the announcement) seriously misinterpreted the findings, but because she’s wrong in her interpretation does not mean her people didn’t find something.

    What’s needed in this case is for another party of assess the samples her people assessed to see what they find. Not only what she tested, but other samples as well. And to venture forth to see what they can find on their own. For there are differences in hair structure between mammallian species etc.

    Don’t assume just because people you know and trust insist that something is so. Where proper testing has yet to be done, see that it gets done. And rejecting a possibility because it disagrees with you is no way to do science.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 11:04 am 05/16/2013

    Johnathan,

    I meant to draw the comparison between something we don’t fear but is dangerous (dog bites and fatalities) and something we do fear but is relatively harmless (being attacked by a “river monster”). And you’re right, man is dangerous, which is why we shouldn’t spread false fear about harmless creatures.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 11:09 am 05/16/2013

    Mythusmage,

    Ketchum did not publish in an actual journal, and interpreted unknown human DNA to be Bigfoot DNA. Since it wasn’t conclusive, we have to look to the weight of evidence. Since there is no reason (right now) to believe there are Bigfeet roaming our forests, we default to that position until good evidence suggests otherwise. We can’t say “I don’t know what I found, therefore Bigfoot.”

    The consensus among biologists seems to be that there have been too many expeditions into the forests where Bigfoot is supposed to be for them not to find a large primate. Each expedition closes the door a bit further; it doesn’t add weight to Bigfoot’s case.

    I do not reject the possibility that Bigfoot can’t exist; there is so far no good evidence to suggest that it does exist. Ketchum’s results were not compelling, and so the search continues. But her failed study only adds to the weight of evidence suggesting that there is no Bigfoot, not the other way around.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Mythusmage 5:15 pm 05/16/2013

    Kyle,

    In any experiment 99% of the time the problem is not with the data, but with the interpretation of the data. Dr. Ketchum very badly misinterpreted what was learned from the testing her party did. Then you had to misinterpret it yourself.

    I don’t doubt she found something. What she found she and you misinterpreted. I don’t doubt she found human DNA in her samples; that does not make the creature a hybrid of human and unknown ape. Keep this in mind.

    The split between hominids and chimps occurred some (last I heard) 6 million years ago. Last I heard the split between Homo and Australopithecus occurred about 2 million years ago. Ever consider the possibility the split between the line that led to Man and Sasquatch occurred. Maybe as recently as 3 million years ago. That is to say, humans and bigfoot are related, and since bigfoot came from a line that led to humans, then naturally they would have what we call human DNA.

    Where research is concerned, when’s the last time you heard scientists conducting competent, comprehensive research on the question. Not just giving a foot print or a hair a cursory look over and tossing it because it doesn’t fit his prejudice; but a long term study without all the fooforaw, blathering, and penis fencing all too typical of the field today. When’s the last time somebody went out into bigfoot country, lived there for months at a time, and tested what evidence they did find.

    Have you been to Sasquatch Investigation of the Rockies (http://sasquatchinvestigations.org/)? Michael Johnson (head of SIR) has made an offer to the scientific community, he will make available hair and feces they have identified as bigfoot for your testing; and it can be public.

    Nobody’s found the evidence? On the contrary, nobody has correctly identified the evidence yet.

    What I get from Dr. Ketchum? That there is a large primate native to North America to is, most likely, descended from the same branch of Australopethicine and Man. Do we know this for a fact? Not yet, and we won’t until we do proper research on what evidence is available.

    Carried on a bit here, I will close with a suggestion or two; 1. Compare human, brown bear, and bigfoot DNA; see where they match, and where they don’t. 2. Compare human, chimpanzee, and bigfoot DNA; see where they match and where they don’t. It is my suspicious that bigfoot will prove to be more closely related to humans than to brown bears or chimpanzees, and that DNA now thought to be peculiar to humans will turns out to be shared by bigfoot and Man.

    And remember, conclusions are invalid without proper experimentation.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Kyle Hill in reply to Kyle Hill 10:39 pm 05/16/2013

    Mythusmage,

    I think, despite the lack of evidence, that you are making invalid conclusions. It’s out of my expertise, so I’ll defer to an evolutionary biologist talking about Ketchum here. I’d like to see what you think of his analysis, and why you cannot draw Sasquatch-laden conclusions from the Ketchum non-study.

    Link to this
  9. 9. SwampRat 8:09 am 05/17/2013

    I live on the edge of the Big Cypress National Preserve in Collier County Florida. It took me almost a year of work to capture a bobcat on film that I knew and saw crossing my property every day. It’s been two years unsuccessfully trying to capture the panthers and monkeys I see on film. The bears, foxes, rabbits, opossums, raccoon,coyote and deer are not so camera shy.This includes using a handheld camera and several digital trail cams. The cameras images blur when a creature is moving fast. We have things on our property that we can’t explain. My 54 year old husband is an avid hunter, tracker and outdoors man. Other than shooting or trapping i.e killing the creatures just for I.D. purposes, which we refuse to do, tell me how to prove our claims. And yes, we have pics of footprints and tapes of night calls, and have had large rocks thrown at us from the jungle. And yes, Bigfoot shows only go in after a sighting and their antics are fun to watch. We all know their research techniques are laughable and never expect them to find a Bigfoot. You are welcome to come down and do scientific research for a year, but that would include living in the swamp.The swamp, where trust me after a week exposed to the elements, there is no hair, feces, bones, kills, or a carcass to find. I know, watched a bear killed goat carcass completely disappear in under 10 days, skull and horns included.
    Refute research with research and then write your opinion.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Darby421 5:09 pm 05/19/2013

    As a scientist, I tend to agree with this article. I am distressed to see programs supposedly based on science lend credibility to things like big foot and mermaids. To the posters above: in science extraordinary claims require extraordinary data. Rocks thrown and strange sounds in the night do not even come close to meeting this threshold. The science noted above suggests the opposite, extraordinary claims supported by junk science. Big surprise when those big foot shows find nothing. But they keep making these shows. Science is not for the faint of heart. You make a big claim then you need to PROVE it, and yes that includes reproducible results done by independent investigators.

    Let’s say big foot, the lochness monster and yeti exist. If they do, clearly the populations are extraordinarily small, so small as to be never conclusively observed or detected (in the scientific sense). If they are that small it is likely extinction would have occurred long ago due to lack of genetic diversity. Lack of genetic diversity results in inbreeding which weakens populations increasing the chances of extinction independent of habitat loss and other factors. A review may be read here http://webpages.icav.up.pt/ptdc/BIA-BEC/099934/2008/papers/Frankham_2005_Biological_Conservation.pdf

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  11. 11. mlj1mlj1 4:16 pm 08/25/2013

    Well, I am going to give you a new perspective on Bigfoot. I am not a scientist, but I should have been. I always loved science and was always in the gifted and talented programs about science as a kid in Central Kansas. This took me to the Chalk beds and many other fascinating places. I never saw anything weird there. I never saw a Turkey or a Bald Eagle either and now they are plentiful there. I never dreamed of Bigfoot being in Colorado. In fact, I had only heard a story or two out of Missouri and Oklahoma as a kid, but like most considered it fiction because that’s what I was told.

    Now as an adult and 23 years of searching for the truth mostly on my own due to things that happened to me in the woods I could not explain, I know they are real. I have seen them, smelled them, been touched by them, heard them, and been scared to death by them on many occasions. By the way, they rarely scare me anymore. Its a trust thing. We have scat, we have hair, we have bones from predation, we have pictures, we have tons of evidence. In fact, we have DNA awaiting testing at Wolfson College at Oxford in the UK. I have spent 300 nights in the woods seeking more evidence the last 5 years, but it comes at their pace. My group is putting forth some of the best evidence in the world at Sasquatch Investigations of the Rockies. My hand print, which is massive and unique, no one will touch in the scientific world with its 1/16 dermal ridges and unique oval pad. Its tells the story of failures on both sides. It was left on my truck in the rain at 04 am in NW Colorado by the way on a Thursday night in July. I know who left it, I was there.

    Discounting things by guessing is very unscientific. You know every Native American group in N America has a name for them. I doubt that is a mass hallucination. That should be enough to make any rationale person take a pause on that position.

    Science has no business in my eyes discounting that they have spent little time or resources on is my thought. That trend continues to this day and has been unproductive at best. Now don’t get me wrong, I love science, but some times I shake my head how closed minded its become. It is troublesome trend.

    The truth is, we may have meant close to our intellectual equal. They just choose a different path and have perfected it with speed, stealth, intelligence and masterful camo techniques. There most active times between 02 am and 06 am makes study difficult as well.

    The reason is simple. If you are seen the price is high. Death from being shot by one of us. After 5-6 years they still don’t fully trust me, but I get more each year. Catching fish, that’s easy. Befriending a Sasquatch, now that’s hard, but I am trying and my heart is in the right place.

    The most interesting part about us is our humanity, our thoughts and our ways. All of which, are difficult to measure scientifically. This holds true of the Sasquatch. They just don’t care to share it with most people at this time. They do things on pace with the forest on their own terms, which people have difficulty with. Science has just not been invited to the table. God willing, I have.

    Thanks for your time. I am heading to the woods tomorrow to study make believe people for another 4 days before hunting season and they go into hiding. Wish me luck.

    Sincerely, Michael Johnson-Co Founder-Sasquatch Investigations of the Rockies

    Link to this

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