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What 'Eaten Alive' and Zoos Have in Common

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | December 9, 2014 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | December 9, 2014 |

So a couple of days ago, an idiot dressed up in a special suit and goaded an enormous anaconda to constrict and eat him. It didn’t get that far, he tapped out when it hurt, thankfully for the fate of the poor snake, but it did net the increasingly misnamed Discovery Channel over four million viewers. An eruption of anger preceded and followed the airing of the show. A good amount from people who focused on the pretty apparent animal abuse masquerading as a stunt, and a depressing quantity protesting that it was false advertisement.

Discovery had this totally-not-helping press release to try to help:

“Paul created this challenge to get maximum attention for one of the most beautiful and threatened parts of the world, the Amazon Rainforest and its wildlife. He went to great lengths to send this message and it was his absolute intention to be eaten alive. Ultimately, after the snake constricted Paul for over an hour and went for his head, the experiment had to be called when it became clear that Paul would be very seriously injured if he continued on. The safety of Paul, as well as the anaconda, was always our number-one priority.”

And as Emily reported earlier, the mentioned Paul is now making the rounds insisting that the purpose of the show was to showcase the rain forest, and had nothing to do with being eaten alive by a snake, which is why the show wasn’t called something like, I don’t know, Eaten Alive. But there’s a nugget of interest here, which seems to be the argument that a stunt pulled to get people to watch the educational part of the show can in theory be a stunt worth pulling.

I have the vaguest memory of a childhood visit to a petting zoo. The memory is blank of any experience, just of the echo of dread that convinced me that petting zoos were dens of absolute evil, filled with creatures that would hunt and devour me. If you asked my parents they’d probably either recall it as an outing I enjoyed, or that it wasn’t even memorable enough to remain on the radar. Kids’ memories are unreliable that way. Probably all the Kool-aid.

There was every reason to believe I would love animals: my collection of Zoobooks was one of my most prized possessions, and other than dinosaurs and He-Man, animals were just on principle the most fantastic things imaginable. Zoos, aquariums, I hit the big ones at one point or another and they taught me that nature was just goddamned awesome.

But when I went to a zoo in college, the first time in years, all I could think of was how sad the animals were. How the lions weren’t roaring but crying out dirges. How the bears’ stalking wasn’t that of a predator patrolling but of a captive pacing out the inches of his prison cell over and over again. How the gorillas weren’t noble and mysterious in their towering silence but dejectedly staring into the distance at freedom they’d never taste.

Yes, I was in my writing bad poetry phase, when sentimentality could anthropomorphize anything into human suffering to make my own young angst feel empowered. But there was a truth there that I still see on the occasion I’m in a zoo.

But this isn’t a condemnation of zoos, far from it. They do a great deal of good, and wrap that good in a commercialized product that may not be what is best for the animals, or what makes them happy in the least, but ensures some flow of income in order to do that good in the first place. So zoos will advertise their dramatic spectacles of predators and big apes in order to drive the crowds to fund the research and conservation that they do.

And there’s another component too. For all the bored who crowd into lines to yell at the gorillas to throw their shit, there are a small handful of kids who get to go through every single exhibit one by one, exhausting their parents as they go. There are kids too innocent to see the unhappiness of the animals who revel in the creatures and fall in love with nature and science as they do. Without the zoo, without the low spectacle it provides, those kids are never exposed to that. And in the long run we lose all those people who care about nature. Oh they don’t all grow up to be biologists or some such, but they do grow up with a love for the natural world that would otherwise never be planted in their day to day lives in the concrete jungles.

Four million people watched the idiotic spectacle on Discovery. And first they sat through an hour on the rain forests because that was the scheduled start time. They moaned, bitched about when the dude would actually get eaten, complained afterwards that he didn’t actually get eaten. And in many of those homes, there were kids who sat entranced at that hour of rain forest, who never would have seen it had their dull elders not been drawn in by the freak show premise. They’re the kids who don’t get the joy of watching Nova and Nature, who’ve been given a chance to have that seed take root now.

The show’s premise was a stupid pandering to the cheap seats of society from one angle. From another, it was a brilliant exercise of educational sleight of hand.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.