Beware of the Gonzo Nature-TV Presenter

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Illustration by Jesse Lenz for TIME; Panda: Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP / Getty Images; Steve Irwin: Regis Martin / Getty Images

Sept. 4 is the fifth anniversary of the death of Steve Irwin, the Australian wildlife presenter fatally speared by a stingray's barb while filming on the Great Barrier Reef. His death was a shock, but its manner surprised nobody. There was no dangerous animal Irwin wouldn't provoke and manhandle for TV.

Five years on, the pet-and-pester approach he pioneered has become the standard way for nature programs to produce cheap dramatic footage — reality TV with claws. Turn on any channel and you'll see Irwin lookalikes hassling animals. They declaim their love of nature, while unwittingly recording our dysfunctional relationship with it, teaching our children to both fear and subjugate creatures already pushed to the brink of extinction.

Irwin's boyhood inspiration was the British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough. Often whispering so as not to disturb his subjects, Attenborough reverentially reveals the wonders of the natural world and our place in it. He doesn't set out to demonstrate his mastery over animals.

Today's presenters are different. Animal Planet's slogan is "Surprisingly Human." It should be "Depressingly Human," since it chronicles our species' conflict with almost every other. A South African herpetologist called Donald Schultz, who fronts Wild Recon, is a self-styled adrenaline junkie on a pseudo-scientific mission. He collects snake venom and other animal fluids "that could yield life-altering scientific discoveries." In Sri Lanka, he draws blood from a tranquilized young rogue elephant "so that researchers can study his hormones." But what discoveries those unnamed researchers make — or what qualifies a snake expert to draw blood from the world's largest land mammal — is never explained. What we learn is this: animals are vicious, so humans are justified in using any means to subdue them. Schultz describes the drugged and terrified elephant as "five tons of aggression."

This message is driven home by more recent shows, such as Man-Eating Super Snake ("No one is safe in South Florida") and Nature's Deadliest ("Size doesn't matter to the world's most dangerous creatures"). I've given up on finding a show that teaches us how to live in harmony with animals. Instead, we invade their habitats and, when they defend themselves, we brand them violent.

This is the apparent strategy of Animal Planet's Into the Pride. A pride of lions known for "aggression toward people" must learn to grow accustomed to ecotourists at a Namibian reserve — or else. "If they don't calm down," we're told, "they will be destroyed." Calm down? They're wild animals. They're calm enough when you leave them alone. But try telling that to the show's frat-boy host, a Canadian animal trainer called Dave Salmoni. He approaches on an all-terrain vehicle and sets about acclimatizing the lions to humans — by repeatedly aggravating them. "Right now, they're problem cats," Salmoni explains, "because of their perception of what humans are." In this case, a whooping doofus on a quad bike.

Even National Geographic ("Inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888") can't leave animals be. An episode of its Monster Fish shows American biologist Zeb Hogan wrestling giant South American arapaima into a man-made pond where anglers pay to catch them. This is conservation?

All this poses a dilemma for parents. Where do children form an appreciation of nature? My father took me to zoos, which I loved. But today even the best zoos discomfit many parents, this one included. So children must turn to TV, where they find the bloody dramatized attacks of Discovery Channel's recent Shark Week, or a show like Swamp Brothers, in which Florida reptile trader Robbie Keszey restrains wild animals under the guise of (he says) teaching people to respect "their rights to this place we call earth." My son won't be watching him.

Is there a connection between TV's obsession with subjugating animals and our capacity to destroy them and their habitats? Possibly. We demonized sharks and were soon slaughtering millions for their fins every year. Through nature TV, we're now demonizing all wild creatures to make us feel better about precipitating their extinction. "People come first," says Schultz as he pursues that elephant, and for once he's right. On this planet, only rogue humans are allowed to roam free.

This article originally appeared in the August 22, 2011 issue of TIME Europe.