By the time three orphaned raccoons arrived for emergency care at the Kentucky Wildlife Center in April 2012, “they were emaciated,” says Karen Bailey, a newborn-raccoon specialist who runs the nonprofit clinic outside Georgetown, in central Kentucky. “They were almost dead.”
Bailey cares for up to 800 animals annually, including opossums, otters, and skunks, but she is haunted by the memory of those cubs.
These weren’t just any raccoons—they were the stars of an episode of Call of the Wildman, the hit Animal Planet reality-TV show that regularly attracts more than a million viewers. When the episode about the raccoon cubs, “Baby Mama Drama,” aired in July 2012, it pulled in 1.6 million viewers, becoming the show’s highest-rated episode up to that point. Thanks in part to Call of the Wildman, Discovery Communications, Animal Planet’s parent company, was among the top-three fastest-growing ad-supported cable networks in 2012. The trend continued in 2013.
With three seasons under its belt, Wildman is part of Animal Planet’s ongoing shift away from educational programming to reality TV. “We’re looking to be an entertainment destination, not a natural history channel,” Animal Planet group president Marjorie Kaplan told the New York Times in 2008.
But Bailey, for one, thinks the company has veered off course. “The old Animal Planet was dedicated to education about animals and conservation,” she says. “But to put these animals in stressful situations and to not look out for their well-being—it’s wrong, and it’s disappointing.”
Fluffy’s Got Babies
Call of the Wildman follows the exploits of Ernie Brown Jr., aka Turtleman, a wildlife rescuer from Lebanon, Kentucky. To give the show its charm, Animal Planet teamed up with the production company Sharp Entertainment, which specializes in what has become known as guided reality.
In the raccoon segment, Turtleman must trap an animal that is terrorizing a Kentucky family and, we’re told, may be carrying rabies. Turtleman corners the raccoon in the family’s laundry room. He then learns the real problem: “Fluffy doesn’t have rabies—she’s got babies!” As always, there’s a happy ending—mom and cubs safe at a wildlife sanctuary, a family no longer under siege: “We had no idea that there were babies underneath the house!” the homeowner says.
In fact, the segment was almost entirely concocted. Three sources involved with the show confirmed that producers typically get animals from farms or trappers and put them in fake rescue situations.
“It was part of my job to call around to people to trap animals at the direction of Sharp,” says Jamie, who worked on the show. (Jamie’s name has been changed.)
“It’s 100 percent fake,” said a second production source.