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Drugs, Death, Neglect: Behind the Scenes at Animal Planet

Our exclusive investigation reveals how animals suffer on the network's top reality show.

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 5:55 AM EST

Bats in The Hair Salon

Documents and sources also raise troubling questions about a segment shot at Jazzy Girls, a brightly painted storefront in Houston's fashionable Montrose neighborhood, in April last year. "A mysterious skittering sound in the storage room has been terrorizing the hairdressers," says the voiceover in "Bat Hair Day," which aired in early August. Turtleman is invited by the owner, Velma Trayham, a.k.a. "Coco the CEO," to "uncover the culprit before business goes belly-up." Then, Turtleman "discovers" a group of Mexican free-tailed bats.

Animal Planet and Sharp acknowledge that the bats were placed in the salon for the purpose of filming, but they claim that it happened legally. "Everyone involved in the production of Call of the Wildman is aware to follow all the laws, state and federal, and they know that they have to abide by them for every aspect of the production," Adler says.

Texas law allows people to remove bats from their homes or businesses, though Jonah Evans, a biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, told us that bringing a bat to a new location for entertainment purposes alone is not allowed.

In the weeks after the shooting, documents show, Animal Planet contracted a pest control company to remove dead bats from the salon. Sharp says only one dead bat was recovered, and that it was a different species than the bats they brought in. But Jamie and another individual with direct knowledge of the arrangement say that a pest control company was required at least twice, and Mother Jones has seen documents indicating that Sharp paid for bat removal service on two separate occasions; both sources say one dead bat was definitely the same species as the bats Turtleman chased. During the filming of the episode, Turtleman is shown sealing the gaps in the salon walls shut with tape so the bats can't escape during the "rescue." High slapstick ensues as he flounders to catch the animals with his bare hands and the staff obliges with screams. (Trayham declined to be interviewed. The salon has since closed.)

 

The Woozy Zebra and the "Wild" Mink

In another Texas-based episode, "Lone Stars and Stripes," Turtleman chases a zebra that has supposedly escaped from its fenced-in yard at a ranch. He rides in hot pursuit of the animal in the flatbed of his pickup, brandishing a lasso; eventually he corners the zebra and tackles it.

But behind the scenes, things were far murkier. Production sources told me that the zebra seemed woozy during filming; it could barely walk. Animal Planet and Sharp obtained the zebra from the Franklin Drive Thru Safari, an animal park run by a businessman named Jason Clay. In a phone interview, Clay confirmed that he supplied the zebra, but denied using sedatives. Clay is licensed under the federal regulations for animal exhibitors, which specify that "drugs, such as tranquilizers, shall not be used to facilitate, allow, or provide for public handling of the animals," and that handling of animals should not cause trauma, behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort.

Despite Clay's denial, Animal Planet and Sharp confirmed to Mother Jones that the zebra was drugged before filming, but they say it happened behind their backs. However, Jamie and other sources say that the crew was aware of the zebra's sedation during filming, especially since the animal nearly fell over several times. "I heard about the zebra being almost unusable," says another source. "They sedated it, to get it to be less crazy." Another confirmed that the zebra looked "out of it." Animal Planet admits that producers used an additional, unsedated zebra for supplemental footage.

"It's a damn bullshit show," Clay says. "You know it, and I know it. It's just entertainment, cheap entertainment. It gives everybody a job or something to do."

On movie sets, union rules require animal handlers to be monitored by the American Humane Association, which bestows the coveted "No Animals Were Harmed" disclaimer. (The group was the subject of a recent investigation by Hollywood Reporter, which describes AHA's resources as stretched thin, even for the shows they do monitor.)

But AHA supervision is not required on nonunion sets, and the group says Call of the Wildman has never invited the group to monitor animals. Sharp says that it now employs an animal handler with a USDA exhibitor license to enforce its new guidelines, which it made available to Mother Jones.

 

But prior to these changes, say the sources, Animal Planet asked untrained staff members to handle animals and to make ethical judgments about using them. In one episode, Turtleman is called in to track down a mink vandalizing a putt-putt course in Lexington, Kentucky. Because of scheduling issues, the mink was kept caged for up to a week at the home of a local production staffer, Will Johnston, according to two sources who worked on the show. Johnston declined to comment. Animal Planet confirms the mink was not Johnston's pet.

Sharp said in a statement that, "It has always been COTWM policy that show staff not be asked to handle the animals on a production. Prior to season three, occasionally, staff members were asked to supply food or water or to accompany a licensed officer in the transport of animals."

But the new policies, say members of the show's crew, may not fix all the problems with the show's animal-handling culture. "I think the entire model is wrong," said one of the sources. "I don't think the needs of production trumps the needs of both the environment and the ethical treatment of these animals."

In the end, says Bailey, "so many people look up to Animal Planet. They remember the old Animal Planet that was dedicated to true education about animals and conservation. But to put animals in harm's way, to put these animals in stressful situations and to not look out for their wellbeing—it's wrong and it's disappointing."

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