[This story was updated on Nov. 4 at 12:20 p.m. PT.]
PETA has tried for years to convince late night and daytime talk shows to no longer feature wild animals on their shows. Now, the org believes it has found an “in” to further that cause: The COVID-19 pandemic.
With talk shows still avoiding most in-person guests, even as they return to their regular studios, PETA is hoping to send a message that the shows have managed to go most of this year without on-set visits by wild animals — so why reinstate the practice once the pandemic has passed?
That would be quite a change for talk shows, which have been known for their animal segments since the days of the San Diego Zoo’s Joan Embery on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” and even long before that.
Lewis Crary, the assistant manager of PETA’s animals in film and television department, said he has seen “positive change” in the use of animals in TV and film, but calls talk shows “a perplexing holdout.”
“Whereas people are recognizing increasingly that wild animals shouldn’t be used for entertainment at marine parks or in scripted films, or at the circus, they’re still being dragged on to these talk shows,” he said. “Now, we’re using this kind of break in COVID when we haven’t had live audiences to really try and communicate to these talk show hosts, that when they come back they really got to leave these animals segments behind.”
Crary called the use of wild animals on talk shows a “gimmick,” and claims that it “promotes exotic pet ownership, fuels the wildlife trade and perpetuates this dangerous idea that wild animals are ours to control.”
But some talk show insiders defend the practice, noting that the visits are done ethically with carefully selected animals, and are meant to ignite awareness in the plight of such animals in a world drastically collapsing due to climate change.
Crary suggested those issues could still be addressed, but by videos and other means. He lauds alternatives such as “A Little Late with Lilly Singh” segment featuring Bindi Irwin, brought on dogs available for adoption.
“I guarantee that no one’s going to be disappointed seeing John Cena with a bunch of puppies on Lilly Singh’s show,” he said. “I’ve just been catching up with Drew Barrymore’s new talk show, and it’s just been so refreshing, she’s been incorporating animals into her show so much, but doing it in exactly the most responsible way. Just innocuous, passive YouTube videos that we’ve all come accustomed to. Those can communicate and express the same kind of compassion for animals without any of them being penalized in the process, like when they’re having to be handled by strangers and put in front of a crew.”
Among the animal trainers behind many talk show appearances that PETA criticizes is Wide World of Animals’ Grant Kemmerer. As reported by Page Six last year, PETA took on Kemmemer for allowing celebrities and host Jimmy Fallon to improperly touch animals on “The Tonight Show.”
Besides Kemmerer, PETA also shared the names of other animal suppliers that it says has violated various codes. [Editors’ note: The original story referred to a claim that PETA has evidence of wild animal cruelty on site at several animal suppliers. But Variety has since learned that PETA does not have evidence of animal cruelty on Wild Wonders, Inc.’s property. We apologize for the error.]
Kemmerer, however, calls the attacks “character assassination.” “They’re setting out to destroy my life but with no basis of who I am or what I’m about,” he said. “There were bad players, but state and federal law and yes, even PETA has helped bring an end to bad players. To take animals off programs so people don’t see them is pushing them in the closet. It’s part of a whole system where you hope exposure with people seeing animals keeps it in their mind, and when you have animal expert explaining it, that they need our help on a program like that, it gets it out there. You’re only aware of things that you see. Some people react to it and it makes a difference.”
It’s difficult to tell what kind of impact the campaign has actually had on talk shows, since the programs aren’t back at full capacity. PETA noted that Robert Irwin appeared without wild animals on “Tonight Show” in September, and also pointed to Bindi Irwin visit with adoptable puppies on Singh’s show. It also noted that “Jimmy Kimmel Live” also appeared to scrap a wild animal segment in March.
But this remains a hot button issue, and as a result, the shows have declined to comment about the request (some haven’t responded to repeated emails, and are likely using the current no-live-guest policy to avoid the questuin). But at least one show told Variety that they haven’t been contacted yet by PETA. An insider familiar with “The Tonight Show” notes that the show hasn’t had any wild animals on the show over a year.
PETA’s rhetoric has always been both admired and criticized in Hollywood, depending on viewpoint. Just as the popular docuseries “Tiger King” exposed the seedy underbelly of private wild zoos — and PETA’s role in trying to shut them down — the fight to stop animal talk show appearances has some executives (none of whom are willing to go on the record) asking why the org hasn’t put nearly as much energy into fighting the policies made under the Trump administration.
“Under Trump, it is now legal to bait hibernating bears in Alaska from their dens on national reserves with cupcakes to kill them; and it’s legal to break into dark wolf dens with flashlights to slaughter sleeping mothers and their pups,” said one source. “Hunters can now shoot swimming caribou from boats and target animals from airplanes and snowmobiles. And these are only a few of the atrocities our government has made legal. When Trump is preparing to set up more roadblocks to remove more protections for threatened species that will make it easier to delist them from the ESA, which has already happened to gray wolves, it’s sad to me that we’re having this conversation.”
Crary, however, believes the timing is right, given the newfound public awareness from “Tiger King” and the fact that COVID-19 has halted in-studio talk show guests.
“People get a little bit blinded by the cutesy factor and they’re not thinking about, of course this animal looks like they’re getting all this attention and they must be so well taken care of,” Crary said. “And from the photos and the imagery and everything we see, that is not at all the case… If you want to celebrate animals, you now you can show footage from an accredited sanctuary. Show passively acquired footage. Anyone who’s seen ‘Planet Earth’ would know that it’s totally absurd that in order to get people to appreciate animals we need to be abusing them.”
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