Is Animal Planet's Fatal Attractions Fair?
A show that condemns alternative pet ownership
I make an attempt with anything I write about pet ownership to emphasize that not all animals make 'good' pets for the majority of people. The same concept applies to human children. Animals have different requirements and care levels, and perhaps a few are just not suitable for captivity outside of the most well-funded, professional zoos.
However, private pet ownership, animal captivity, whatever you want to call it, is continually under assault from various ‘news’ articles, televised reports and sensationalistic media. It is a deadly combination; these shows are aimed toward ignorant people who are interested in viewing a freak show and not in learning about how some pet owners responsibly live a unique life with a challenging captive animal.
If the premise of Animal Planet’s popular show Fatal Attractions intrigues you more than makes you wonder about the implications it will have on the lives of others, you are likely its target audience, and are learning for the first time the 'surprising' truth that large exotic carnivores, giant snakes, and venomous reptiles can be purchased without much restriction in some states in the US (now approximately 6 states). The issue however, is not as black and white as the one-sided reports will have you easily believe.
Animal planet's popular show is obvious exploitation, shamefully pegging individuals as mentally unstable or of having some other socially undesirable personality disorder when they have no ability to defend themselves. With no help from a recent event in Ohio, in which a private owner allegedly released his private menagerie of large carnivores onto the public, ‘exotic’ pet owners of all kinds, zoos and other forms of animal captivity are being castigated by the public. The sentiment is even reflected in movies and shows directed toward the earliest of youth, and continue to flourish among adults both environmentally focused and those who plod along with traditional conventions.
This Animal Planet series begins with a title sequence in which a background appears that looks as though it was lifted from a disturbing R-rated horror flick, to get you in the mood to view the demented individuals who like unusual pets. There is creepy, spine-chilling music to match the atmosphere. Clearly, it is apparent that no informative tone will exist here; the show has already made up your mind on how to react to the scenarios and the pets being kept.
The typical format of an episode starts with a female-narrated sequence of reenactments mixed with real footage of exotic animals and quick cuts to close ups of teeth and the animal devouring its prey in the wild. Sometimes fake blood is tackily thrown in front of the camera in the portrayals, whether or not the story being spoken about contains a death or severe injury.
The aesthetics often resemble a cheap advertisement for a Sci-fi original movie, however the show tries to remain their own version of level-headed and fill time gaps by giving the featured re-enacted to-be-victims a back-story, similar to other current exploitation-oriented TV series that feature hoarders. Sometimes interviews are held with people that haven't been in a conflict, to provide 'insight' into the mentality of a wild animal owner. When current animal owners are interviewed, the eerie atmosphere and the tone of voice from the narrator depict them as dancing with an impending death. The expected reaction of the viewer is to be shocked and appalled that, after having witnessed a tragic story, these other owners of the same animals continue to own their animals.
The stories of Fatal Attractions
Each hour long episode tries to center around a theme of similar-type animals. It's almost guaranteed that you will have heard of at least some of the stories presented among the episodes. Some of the most famous (and those that have inspired the most oppressive bans) are those of Travis the chimp who gruesomely mauled his owner’s friend, Ming the tiger found in a New York City apartment by a naïve zoo owner aspire-e, and stranglings by large pythons. It can probably be assumed that the dead horse beating will continue with a future new episode about the Ohio incident. It never fails at getting the viewer into the mood to despise animal owners.
The show is also now beginning to deviate from pet ownership to occupations such as circuses, which is expanding the shows' territory to animals used for business purposes. There are plenty of lesser known, and sometimes sketchy stories featured on the show, such as a man supposedly ‘eaten’ by his free-roaming monitor lizards, which were more than likely just starving, and feasting on the body of their deceased owner who died from a bacterial infection (this episode is notable for its potential to cross over to pets that are more common, such as reptiles), and a man who was killed by his pet bull (it should be noted that a bull is a domesticated animal). Burmese pythons are large snakes, but they are actually commonly kept by reptile keepers, and deaths by them are very rare, even when compared to domesticated dogs.
Are pit bull owners next?
- How to Respond to People Who Are Against Wild or Exotic Pet Ownership
A comprehensive guide on how to respond to the tired and repetitive 'arguments' that people use against caring for animals other than dogs and cats.
Fatal Attractions presents negligent animal owners
In the episode titled "Pet Hyena: No Laughing Matter", included is a story of a wild attack from a non-pet hyena. This is common in the show, likely due to the fact that there are no other existing stories of deaths from pet hyenas for the show to report on, so it serves as filler that pumps the viewer up for the main story which, despite the title, does not contain a fatality.
What it does contain is a perfect example of the real problem with exotic pet ownership: selfish and irresponsible owners. In the episode, male model Bryan Hawn obtains many exotic pets, such as even lemurs, to live in his Florida apartment. Continuing on this, he illegally adds a hyena to his collection, purchasing the animal from the extremely unprofessional and unethical Animal Kingdom Zoo in Bordentown, NJ (this ‘zoo’ also sells puppies that some believe come from puppy mills), despite barely having the purchase price of the animal alone. While keeping even a dog in a small apartment would be unethical, he deludes himself into thinking he can keep such a large carnivore locked in his apartment. All too commonly, even with domestic pets, reality sets in once his new pet becomes an adult. An opportunity surfaced allowing him to turn his animal in without penalty (an exotic animal 'amnesty day'), and that persuaded him to part with the animal. The animal currently resides at the Zoological Wildlife Foundation.
Another example of bizarre human behavior is that of Antoine Yates, the owner of the tiger Ming, who was discovered in Antoine's Harlem apartment. Antoine was not so lucky as Hawn and was convicted to a 6-month prison term for his non-compliance with the law. Hawn, despite his unethical decisions, continues to advertise his experience as ‘inspirational’ and is allowed to visit his ex-pet at its new home. This provides insight into the values of that facility.
Televised Misconceptions about Exotic Pets
Claims made by some animal ‘sanctuaries’ and seemingly well-intentioned organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) will lead you to believe that the exotic pet trade is a thriving and expanding industry. They will present statistics on exotic pets that happen to include everything from tigers to ferrets. What is an exotic pet? It is important for the distinctions to be made. The word exotic pet is not synonymous with large dangerous wild carnivore, yet all owners of exotic pets have the potential to be affected by laws prompted by ignorance. The claims of these organizations are supplemented with shows like Fatal Attractions, where it would seem that ownership of wild animals is out of control in the United States.
However, and quite obviously, truly private-owned animals such as tigers, bears, and chimpanzees are uncommon. That would explain why attacks/conflicts involving such animals are also uncommon in comparison to the non-stigmatized domesticated dogs. While large exotic animals are far more challenging to maintain in captivity and require an owner who lives in a dedicated lifestyle not required of those who care for domestic cats and some dogs, such un-average people with the proper financial requirements do exist. Have you ever heard of Big Cat Rescue? These 'were' exotic pet owners. How about Tippi Hedren's Shambala Wildlife Preserve? She was certainly an exotic pet owner, purchasing and breeding hundreds of big cats for a single film appearance and as household pets. These animals resided on her property, and often inside of her house, as they did with Carole Baskin (the bobcats and servals), Big Cat Rescue's founder.
The difference between these big cat owners and those presented on Fatal Attractions is socioeconomic status.
These individuals have now turned their pet owning situations into "sanctuaries" as have many others, so that it is more acceptable to the public. In fact, not only does declaring your property a sanctuary allow you to continue keeping exotics, but it yields public donations and buckets of undeserved praise. In turn, individuals like this often support bans so no one else can ever do what they do, with such new laws making it difficult or impossible for a newcomer to start their own 'sanctuary', and thus losing more potential homes for unwanted wildlife. Other animal owners also have their lifestyles, dreams, and possibly their ability to care for their current animals dashed due to public perception.
The fact remains that unethical people who shouldn't own these animals will always ignore the law and do so anyway, like Hawn. Many states, counties and cities have already enacted several laws against harmless ‘exotics’, sometimes to such extremes as ferrets, sugar gliders and gerbils. It is an unjustified reaction partly due to the isolated incidents that Fatal Attractions presents as the norm.
If these attacks and incidences of pure irresponsibility were normal, why, whenever so rarely that these animals do end up as the top news stories, are they sensationalized? While dog attacks can practically be heard about daily, attacks by big cats and other similar animals are uncommon and become big news when they are reported on. The Ohio incident, that is inspiring several laws around the country, reached international notoriety.
Responsible animal owners rarely, if ever, end up in the news. Yet they will be the first ones to lose their right of pursuing happiness and the life they want to live. I’m not directly supporting the ownership of such demanding animals; however, I feel that if the qualifications can be met, financially and education-wise, then someone should not be barred from the opportunity to obtain the animal of their choice.
For many activities, there is a degree of danger that the person doing the activity accepts to live the life of their choosing. The degree of danger that captive exotics present to the public is also exaggerated. There are proper ways to house larger exotics, and in my opinion, I prefer it to be ‘hands off’ after the animal matures.
- How to Care for a Pet Tiger
It may sound ridiculous to many, but there are actually proper ways to privately own large cats. With the proper financial status, land rights, and common sense, tiger care is feasible, and opens up homes for the unwanted animals.
I’m certainly not supportive of zero regulations for obtaining and keeping such animals, and I’m not supportive of unethical breeding of such animals for captivity outside of acknowledgement of the limited amount of homes that may be available for them. I am supportive of laws that prevent people like Bryan Hawn from obtaining wildlife. It all boils down to common sense and assessing the facts. Many believe that no wild animal can ever be happy in captivity, but it is impossible to support this position without considering that more captive domesticated animals and common exotics are also at risk for mistreatment. Either way, romanticized views of where wildlife 'belongs' and unproven claims should not dictate the lifestyles and choices of others, and certainly not spontaneous decisions enacted by televised misinformation.