The biggest scandals to hit Animal Planet

The Animal Planet network is the place where people go to watch feel-good (or what-on-earth-was-that) shows about animals. You can learn about meerkats, how zoos work, or how hippos swim. The late Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter himself, arguably helped put Animal Planet on the map as the coolest educational channel on TV.

But Animal Planet has changed over the years and it hasn't been to everyone's tastes. Now it offers more shows that play like reality TV, or shows stretching the truth to entice viewers. There are lots of programs that continue in the old Animal Planet tradition (Meerkat Manor, anyone?) and people still love to learn about animals. But now it has competition in that department, both on television and online, so it's put more emphasis on the cool people helping the animals than the animals themselves. Slate reported Animal Planet's major programming shift in the 2010s and its new slogan, "Surprisingly Human." 

Problem is, humans can definitely mess up in bigger ways than animals. And the scandals Animal Planet has faced have been enough to disappoint plenty of meerkats and crocodiles. 

Animal Planet's fake animal 'removals'

Most of Animal Planet's reality-based shows directly address how humans interact and deal with animals, whether they're zookeepers or exterminators. One of the network's shows, Call of the Wildman, dealt with a guy nicknamed Turtleman (so why not Call of the Turtleman?) working as a "nuisance animal" removal specialist. He was the guy you called if you had a runaway zoo animal in your backyard and you had no idea what to do.

According to CultureMap Houston, Turtleman was brought in during 2013 to help a Texas hair salon deal with a (suspected) bat problem. They had called him in particular because they didn't want the bats harmed, just removed. All in all, Turtleman and his crew safely removed about 20 adorable bats from the salon.

Except, they didn't. The producers of the show admitted to moving bats from separate locations into the hair salon so they could then be removed on the show. This is not only terrible for the bats, it's illegal under Texas law. Animal Planet also allegedly paid for the removal of dead bats from the salon weeks after the show wrapped up. This was part of a larger investigation into the Wildman series that turned up some pretty egregious acts of animal neglect. Both Animal Planet and the production company behind the show denied the charges, according to CNN.

Animal abuse and fake animal poop

In 2014, Animal Planet canceled Call of the Wildman after what can only be called a scat-storm of scandals. Mother Jones was responsible for not one but two troubling exposés of the crew of this show being terrible to the animals they "rescued."

The overall theme was neglect: According to the exposé, the crew of the show let three raccoon cubs nearly starve to death, drugged a zebra (which is illegal on a federal level), and transported a wallaby across state lines. They caged a mink at a production crew member's house for a week because the shooting schedule had issues. One heart-wrenching incident involved a coyote that was replaced in time for filming because it looked sick. But it only looked like that because it was kept in a trap for "more than three days" before filming. They purchased a replacement coyote from an exotic animal breeder for $500—the import of which was illegal in Kentucky, where they were filming.

Wildman was also exposed as extremely staged. Not just "we filmed this three times to get it right" staged. The exposé's sources said that animals were routinely shipped in from trappers so the host could appear to capture them himself. Production crew even created fake animal droppings for the show with Nutella, rice, and Snickers bars. There's a reason the show never had the "no animals were harmed" disclosure before 2014.

Animal Planet covered fake 'animals' in a pseudo-documentary

There's a difference between being misleading and outright lying to your viewers. The Mermaids: The Body Found special that aired on Animal Planet in 2012 definitely straddled the line between the two.

Business Insider interviewed Charlie Foley, the creator of the mermaids special, and exposed the fact that it was 100 percent fiction. According to an Animal Planet press release, Foley is also the guy responsible for the "what if dragons were real" Animal Planet special from 2005. He's also the guy who created the show Hoarders, if that tells you anything. BI's piece revealed that all the scientists on the mermaids special were played by actors. Even the Bigfoot-esque footage of "encounters" was all fake. The special does riff on a real hypothesis about human evolution known as the aquatic ape hypothesis (described in detail in a legit BBC radio program). But that's about as close as the special gets to any sort of facts. 

Not everyone was amused that Animal Planet devoted airtime (again) to animals that weren't real but were presented as if they were. The National Ocean Service even felt the need to release a statement after the special saying that mermaids were definitely not real. But Animal Planet still saw fit to put out a sequel to the pseudo-doc in 2013. TV Guide reported that Mermaids: The New Evidence had 3.6 million viewers. That's enough to tempt a network to keep putting out nonsense shows. 

Animal Planet unwittingly exposed a super-sketchy animal preserve

People may not remember the Animal Planet show Yankee Jungle, so here's a refresher: An older couple in rural Maine ran a zoo called DEW Haven that housed over 200 animals. The couple don't have any veterinarian training, nor were they zookeepers. Yes, this is just as much of a PR nightmare as it sounds. Once the show aired, people were immediately concerned about the animals. WMTV reported that people picketed the production company behind the show, saying that it was wrong about how it portrayed wildlife conservation and breeding animals in captivity.

But Mother Jones was probably responsible for taking this show down, thanks to an 2016 exposé about the zoo's past. Most of their past citations were relatively small, such as not procuring permits for certain animals before taking them in. Others were more serious and had to do with inadequate care for the animals. The zoo's past troubles were never disclosed on the program.

The Portland Press Herald directly attributed the zoo's increased scrutiny to the fact that they now had a TV show. The couple themselves urged people to not believe everything they heard, brushing off the Mother Jones exposé as from a "liberal magazine." Granted, most of the citations were way in the past. But the most recent ones, like the 2012 citation they had over letting bears in the zoo get so agitated they started fighting, were pretty hard to overlook.

Animal Planet's Tanked suddenly tanked

Tanked was, for a hot second, one of the coolest shows on Animal Planet. The show told the story of a family in Las Vegas (namely a guy, his sister, and his brother-in-law) who built extreme fish tanks for private clients. It educated viewers about what it takes to take care of aquatic life with a how-do-they-do-this reality show edge.

KNTV Las Vegas reported that the show was going to be cancelled in 2019 after going for 15 seasons. That's a long time for a show about building fish tanks to run, and it's reasonable for the audience to be losing interest after all that time. Animal Planet allegedly made the decision back in December 2018.

And the pressure of potential cancellation may have contributed to the March 2019 scandal involving a domestic dispute between two of the stars of the show. Heather King (the sister-in-law) was arrested for slapping and kicking Tanked star Wayde King, as well as maybe dragging him with her car, according to FOX8. According to Yahoo, she then filed for divorce just days later. There was no word on whether the on-screen drama would end sooner than originally scheduled.

Some Animal Planet clients just got Tanked

Even before its cancellation, Tanked was still a magnet for drama. 2018 saw the tank makers behind the show being served with a lawsuit for not returning money for an uncompleted project, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The giant tank to be completed was for a rich guy in Florida who founded a successful medical company. He wanted a cool fish tank in his backyard, so he paid $147,000 to the people who run the business behind the show. The tank would have eventually cost him a total of $368,000. If that sounds like a lot, keep in mind that the tank was set to be 4 feet deep, 16 feet long, and 8 feet wide. It would be so strong that visitors could stand on top and use it as a dance floor. Not even kidding.

As anyone who's remodeled a house will tell you, delays in a major construction project are normal. But the tank took so long even the pool contractors hired to help with the project grew worried about the delays. That's when the Tanked guys dropped that their estimation for the project was actually up to $900,000, not $368,000. They would "need" more money to keep going with the project. Cue the lawsuit. The Orlando Sentinel reported again in 2019 that the Tanked guys lost the lawsuit and didn't even attempt to settle out of court.

Animal Planet's Pit Bulls & Parolees was tied to a destructive couple

Pit Bulls & Parolees is meant to be a heartwarming show. Animal Planet's official description is of a dog rescue center run by a caring woman named Tia Torres. She has a soft spot for pit bulls, and hires ex-convicts to help retrain and take care of stray dogs in New Orleans. Pit bulls are considered the most dangerous dog breed in the world, and the show was meant to reflect the efforts by some groups to rehabilitate both injured dogs and the breed's reputation in general.

So sad then that Torres's mentees, people who went on to run a shelter like hers in Detroit, found themselves in hot water. The Detroit Free Press reported their shelter, Pit Stop For Change Rescue & Rehabilitation, generally seemed well-run. It was being run out of the couple's home, and Torres happily drew attention to their fundraiser for a building that would serve as a designated dog kennel.

The trouble began when the couple moved to New Orleans to work with Torres. They had a fallout and went back to Michigan. But this goes beyond basic drama—Torres shared on Facebook the couple was arrested for hoarding dogs, which they had also allegedly done in New Orleans. The couple then alleged Torres was exploiting dogs for her own benefit and they were transporting dogs to Michigan that she wasn't treating properly. The suit was not settled at the time of writing.

Whale Wars may have rammed a boat—and lied about it

Whale Wars was already a controversial show for Animal Planet, depicting the efforts of a conservation group to mess with the whaling efforts of Japanese companies. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (TSCS), as profiled by the San Diego Union-Tribune, routinely messes with Japanese whaling ships.

All of this makes for great TV, especially when one of the whaling ships rammed a TSCS ship hard enough that it had to be abandoned. According to the Christian Science Monitor, TSCS claims that a Japanese ship rammed into them purposefully when they were out on one of their hunt-sabotage runs in 2009. But the Japanese government came out to say that TSCS's harassment basically made it impossible for them not to get rammed. The group can be, well, childish in how they stop whaling expeditions. Think blinding ship crews with lasers, throwing rancid butter onto the ships themselves, and lying to the press to look like the heroes.

So what really happened? An official investigation said that both ships were to blame, according to the Seattle Times. The Japanese ship could have turned, but the TSCS's smaller ship could have easily hustled out of its path. Either way, the world learned about the drama queen antics of TSCS—including the potential scandal of leaving their boat to sink to garner sympathy. Ugh. No wonder South Park had their way with them.

Family says the Vet Life doctors didn't do enough to save their puppies

The Vet Life is a reality show offering that stays relatively mellow, portraying the work of veterinarians in an animal hospital in Houston, Texas. So it's weird that this is the show that gathered controversy in 2008 for animal negligence, according to KHOU 11.

The sequence of events is important: The Grape family dropped off their two English Bulldog puppies to be boarded for a week at the hospital, then went off on vacation. The dogs were scheduled to be fixed two days into their stay. But one of the dogs died after receiving anesthesia (ostensibly for the procedure). Both of the dogs had eaten and had water before being boarded, which goes against common advice when preparing a pet for an operation. The dog's body was cremated and given back to the family when they returned from vacation, which they insisted they did not give the hospital permission to do.

The Grape family filed a lawsuit against the hospital, but there have been no updates on whether they saw their day in court. One of the vets who worked on the puppy, Vet Life star Dr. Diarra Blue, said in a statement that they did have permission from the family to perform the cremation. At last update, the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners was examining the case to see if there was negligence on behalf of the vets.

Mike Tyson's Animal Planet show about racing pigeons raised eyebrows

A lot of the scandals in this list are genuinely tragic. This one's lighter, promise: In 2010, Animal Planet put together a new reality show starring Mike Tyson. Not about his tiger from The Hangover; Taking on Tyson highlights his pigeon-raising life and his involvement in the pigeon racing world. No joke, Sports Illustrated did a whole spread portraying Tyson's history with pigeons. According to The Wrap, he got into his first fight as a child because a neighborhood kid hurt one of his birds. Kinda cute, right?

Newsday reported that PETA filed a complaint with the district attorney of Brooklyn saying that Tyson stood to make money from racing birds on the show, which is illegal in New York. They had problems with the show for promoting pigeon racing, which they said can be stressful and overall cruel on the birds. Audubon pointed out that pigeon racing can also encourage killing the natural predators of pigeons (though they were quick to point out that Tyson has never been linked to that).

Despite their efforts, Taking on Tyson wasn't halted over pigeon brutality. Animal Planet's spokesperson said that there were never any plans to wager on the pigeon races, the actually illegal part. Besides, Mike Tyson loved his birds too much to let anything bad happen to them.

An Animal Planet vet was heavily criticized for bad hygiene during surgery

Dr Jeff: Rocky Mountain Vet is another feel-good show about people coming together to help animals in a clinical setting. Dr. Jeff Young, according to Animal Planet themselves, brings his "maverick" spirit to the work. Perfect for a country vet clinic, but definitely controversial at times.

In one episode, Dr. Jeff was shown performing surgery on a large dog without wearing a surgical mask or scrubs. This was the first surgery taking place in a new facility, so it's understandable that he just may not have been able to locate them in time when his patient needed him. But that's still not okay, in case anyone reading this has never had surgery. Contaminants from the surgeon can infect a patient and vice versa, regardless of species.

The American Veterinary Medical Association sent a formal letter to Animal Planet over the incident, according to DVM 360. They were concerned that the urge to provide care to animals at a lower cost was leading Dr. Jeff and the crew to cut corners. Someone must have listened, because the AVMA didn't complain after that. In fact, an anecdote from one vet in the August 2019 issue of the AVMA's journal described how her opinion on reality show starring vets changed after encountering the passionate fanbase behind Rocky Mountain Vet.

A Pit Bulls & Parolees alum wore the show's merch to rob a store

This scandal isn't treacherous or dangerous, just stupid and sad. Pit Bulls & Parolees really didn't need the drama that ensued when Randy Walker robbed a New Orleans office in 2012. According to Nola.com, he was wearing official Pit Bull merchandise and was later confirmed to have worked for the shelter tied to the show.

Walker was exactly the kind of person that the Pit Bulls shelter is designed to help. Shelter owner Tia Maria Torres hired him personally after seeing his audition video. He was on parole for possession of crack cocaine and burglary when he was hired, and he claimed to have never before completed parole when arrested for previous offenses. But he was fired a few months before robbing the office complex. This particular arrest landed him in jail with a $25,000 bail. All this just to steal a computer, according to WDSU.

This incident doesn't seem to have hurt the shelter's reputation in the community. Local volunteers rallied around them in 2019 to donate blankets and help walk dogs when the shelter was experiencing flooding, according to 4WWL.