I was 11 years old when Tony Blackburn was crowned the first king of the jungle. I can clearly remember watching with rapt, horrified attention as spoon-bending Uri Gellar ate a live, wriggling Witchetty Grub, slicing it with a knife and fork and screaming between mouthfuls. Nigel Benn was bitten by a snake that repeatedly struck at him in an imaginatively named ‘Snake Surprise’ trial and Christine Hamilton chased around some squealing pigs in the mud.
Big Brother and Fame Academy feel like ancient history, having faded away into obscurity before being canned long ago, but fast forward almost two decades and I’m A Celebrity continues to hold a secure position in ITV’s Autumn schedule. The 2020 Welsh incarnation of the show, won by Giovanna Fletcher on Friday night, has been as popular as ever, attracting an average audience of 12 million viewers. That means almost one in six people in the UK tuned in.
The producers made the decision to move away from the eating of live insects in trials a few years ago in response to Ofcom complaints and pressure from animal welfare organisations. But live animals (snakes and rats in particular) still feature heavily. I’ve always been a fan of the show, but as the series go by, as a vet I find myself squirming ever so much more at the trials. I’m not squirming for the contestants, but for the animals involved.
I don’t want to be a Killjoy – I’ve always enjoyed watching the show. But it projects an image that from an animal welfare perspective is no longer acceptable in 2020.
’30 snakes in there with you now, 30 snakes each’ Ant says, as a petrified, hyperventilating Jordan North, and somewhat less scared Shane Richie lie in parallel underground vaults. The snakes are piled on top of each other, in a confined space as the celebrities manoeuvre around to access safes located around the edges of the vault.
Over the lifetime of the show, there have been over 400 trials. I would speculate that in that time period there it is inevitable animals have been squashed, or injured, and have had to be euthanised as a result. And aside from any risk of injury, the experience is likely to be extremely stressful for the animals involved.
I discussed the matter with the head reptile keeper at a well known UK zoo. ‘Firstly the animals used always look in good health prior to these trials, so they’ve obviously been raised by people who know what they’re doing, which makes it even more disappointing that they’re being bought in (hired probably) for something like this’.
‘Using snakes as an example, when put in a confined space with a panicked […] person, it asks the question about stress and potential injury risk to said animal(s), and consideration for animal welfare just isn’t present whether it be for invertebrate or vertebrates used; there’s no way the producers can defend that’.
Hypothetically speaking, the producers would never dream of forcefully cramming 30 stressed dogs into a confined space for a trial. The public would be up in arms. Everyone knows this would be an unpleasant experience for the dogs, and it could be quite harrowing to watch. Dogs are domesticated animals that have body language most of us can read the basics of almost instinctively. The welfare impact would be indisputable.
Snakes are sentient beings and suffer stress as dogs can, they just do not express it in a way that we humans can easily read. We can tell when a dog feels threatened; it might cower or try to run away. The position of a dog’s ears and tail communicate emotion, and they can bark, growl and whimper. A snake does not communicate in the same way, but would nonetheless feel threatened by being in a confined space with a panicked person making unpredictable movements. Most species of snake are housed either as individuals, or in pairs or small groups, and so being thrown into a group of up to 50 snakes (used in the Iron Maiden trial in the series finale) that they cannot escape from would be extremely stressful.
Stress can have a profound impact on the health of these animals; it can be a trigger factor for diseases in reptiles, such respiratory infections, which can be very serious and even fatal. Parasitic and bacterial infections are a common problem in reptiles and placing such a large number of individuals together is just asking for such diseases to spread. This is also a human health side to this – reptiles commonly carry Salmonella, which they are more likely to shed and infect in-contact humans with if they are stressed.
The Animal Welfare Act 2006 in the UK protects vertebrate animals, including snakes, and requires that they are protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease. Legally they should be provided with a suitable environment, be able to express normal behaviour patterns and be housed with, or apart from other animals, depending on their species. UK zoos and wildlife parks have to work to high standards, as the public expect, to ensure that captive animals are kept in as suitable conditions as possible.
I don’t think any roaming wildlife show or animal park could get away with piling 50 snakes into a small space for entertainment purposes without risk of prosecution, and might I add most would not dream of doing so. But bizarrely, it’s fair game on prime time television.
This year, as in previous years the BVA (British Veterinary Association) has campaigned for the removal of animals in trials in their #getanimalsoutofthere campaign, and the RSPCA publicly stated that they have concerns about welfare in this years series. The organisation said that they ‘spoke to [the producers] about changing the way they use animals along with the change of continent – perhaps introducing welfare-friendly alternatives to animal use in the trials. However, we were really disappointed to be told that they would continue to be using animals in this way during this series.’
In the credits of the show, ITV state that ‘I’m a Celebrity complies with animal welfare law concerning the use of animals’. But the views expressed by key welfare organisations above would seem to completely contradict this. How on Earth do they get away with it?
You might not like snakes or rats. And yes, looking at the grand scheme of things there are much broader issues in terms of animal welfare that need to be given attention. The slaughter of animals for meat consumption without pre-stunning, the plague of puppy farming and globally the huge and continued loss of wildlife habitat perhaps make chucking 50 snakes in a metal sarcophagus with a Radio One DJ for ten minutes seem a trivial welfare issue.
But this DOES matter. I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here is one of the most-watched shows on television and ITV have a moral obligation to set a good example in terms of how animals are treated and depicted. In a time of impending climate and ecological crisis, where the public is being urged to change behaviours and be more respectful of the natural world, the continued use of animals in trials sends the wrong message, especially to younger generations.
I’m a Celebrity can continue to be entertaining, and the trials can still be gruelling without animals being the losing party.
The RSPCA have created an easy to use form for members of the public to send messages complaining to Ofcom about the use of animals in trials which is available here