Last night, the Discovery Channel aired its controversial special Eaten Alive, in which a man tried (and failed) to get a green anaconda to eat him. And while we're glad that it didn't get that far, this special was just a bullshit excuse to use fear of these animals for the sake of ratings.
We watched the entire one-and-a-half-hour Eaten Alive special so that you don't have to. And if you haven't watched it, don't. Calling it a nature special is a stretch of the imagination, since the emphasis is on the crew and their fear of the larger green anacondas. If you're really curious about the money shot, you can head over to Gawker and see their video of it.
So yes, so-called naturalist and wildlife photographer Paul Rosolie really did try to get himself eaten and then regurgitated by a green anaconda. Rosolie tapped out before the snake actually managed to swallow him, which is good news for the snake. So Rosolie didn't get eaten and the snake didn't die in the process. What's the harm? Well, there is still plenty wrong with Eaten Alive even without anyone actually getting eaten.
That tweet comes from Laurie Goldberg, Group Executive Vice President of Public Relations at Discovery, before Eaten Alive aired. Supposedly, Discovery had some notion that they could spin Eaten Alive as an effort to promote Amazonian conservation. And yes, the vast majority of Eaten Alive doesn't involve Rosolie wrestling with an anaconda. In fact, it was only in the last 18 minutes of that 1.5-hour special that we got around to Rosolie's attempted stunt. Instead, much of the special is devoted to talk about how dangerous anacondas are.
Rosolie spends a good part of the time puffing out his chest in front of the camera and telling us all how much danger he will be in when he tries to get an anaconda to eat him, and there are constant mentions of the crew being in danger. By contrast, there is remarkably little observation of anacondas in the wild or talk about the animals' disappearing habitat. When experts come on the screen to talk about the green anaconda's predatory abilities, they tend to say "you" (as in "the snake uses these teeth to latch onto you") instead of "its prey," encouraging viewers to imagine themselves as the snakes' prey.
And whenever the crew does get its hands on an anaconda, it is clear that, while an anaconda could certainly crush (or perhaps drown) a human, it's very much at the mercy of its captors. There have been (non-fatal) strikes recorded on human researchers studying anacondas, but the snakes we see are just trying to get away. Still, the crew members chatter on constantly about the dangers these snakes pose.
Certainly we shouldn't be encouraging people to tromp into an anaconda's habitat and handle wildlife without training, but how does reinforcing the fears of anacondas that people get from movies and twice-told tales inspire conservation efforts? The green anaconda is presented here not as a majestic animal with a vanishing habitat but as a monster hiding in the Amazon.
So the premise of the Eaten Alive stunt is that Rosolie would be swallowed by a green anaconda and then regurgitated. The announcement of this plan is accompanied by footage of an anaconda regurgitating a meal. Does that happen? Sure. But the problem is that regurgitating an animal can be dangerous for an anaconda.
We spoke with anaconda researcher Jesús Rivas, who explained that not only is eating something as large as an adult human hazardous to a snake's health, so is regurgitating something that large. While an anaconda is swallowing or regurgitating food, its airway is blocked and it can't breathe. Dr. Rivas has seen green anacondas in his care die from eating meals that were too large, and noted that even if the snake survived, the act of swallowing and regurgitated an adult man would be physically traumatic for the anaconda. However, the only hazards anyone mentions in the special are the potential dangers to Rosolie and members of his crew, not the dangers this stunt poses to the snake.
Okay, we can't confirm this, but wildlife ecologist David Steen (who did some excellent live-tweeting of the special) and others watching the special heard frog and toad sounds that don't belong in the Amazon. If Discovery did add North American audio to their Amazon video, it's not quite as awful as force-feeding a snake, but it's just another example of how this was not a genuinely educational special, but rather a stage being set.
So, after more than an hour of listening to Rosolie and his companions talk about how much danger they were in, we finally got to the big moment. Rosolie donned a suit of armor made up of freaking CHAIN MAIL and carbon fiber plating, as well as an oxygen mask. The snake received no such defensive measures. And after all that, Rosolie had to approach the snake, lie down on top of the snake, and prod it into wrestling him. Even Rosolie said, in an interview with the Telegraph, that he had to provoke the snake into defending itself. Of course, all anyone talked about were the dangers Rosolie was facing.
Also, he soaked himself in dead pig's blood, which didn't necessarily make him more appealing to the snake.
It turned out, however, that we didn't get to that point. Rosolie called uncle while the anaconda was exerting a crushing pressure on his arm. He might be willing to cause a snake physical trauma in the name of his stunt, but he drew the line at his own arm. On the one hand, we understand that it probably hurt like nothing else. On the other, what was he really expecting?
As much as Discovery and Rosolie defend Eaten Alive as a pro-conservation piece, it's clear that many viewers wanted to see a man eaten alive and were disappointed when it didn't happen. This morning, the discussion has not been about the preservation of the green anaconda's habitat but how pissed viewers are that Rosolie wasn't actually eaten. Congratulations, Discovery, you got people hyped up to see a snake tortured. Now what does this do for the reputation of green anacondas?
Seriously, Shark Week is bad enough. Discovery, don't make Eaten Alive a precursor to a similarly terrible week filled with misleading snake programming.