A few months ago I posted a link about Food Network and its annoyingly blatant whiteness. Since I moved to San Francisco and relaxed my channel restrictions, I have rarely watched it. Perhaps because I feel even more acutely that I am not allowed to have a pet in this dog-mad city, I am turning frequently to Animal Planet. As is typical for someone who expects to see persons of her race depicted with regularity on television (see: privilege, white), it took me a long time to notice that something was wrong. I was finally struck with full force during an episode of Escape From Chimp Eden, when another white sanctuary owner was explaining to our white sanctuary owner protagonist that "the natives" killed chimps and thus she had to keep them within her walls. It is not that "the natives" are bad people per se, you see, just that they are ignorant and superstitious. Our protagonist makes a point to attend a market looking for bush meat, presented as barbarically as possible, to further illustrate how far 'these people' have to go. The fact that native Africans may be eating monkeys because they are hungry, and why they might indeed be hungry (or, for that matter, why people keep clearing forest land for their farms), is never discussed. Nor is the idea that white people coming in and walling off parts of African land to protect African animals from Africans is perhaps a tad paternalistic.
This is the crux of Animal Planet's racial politics, wherever the shows are set. All the 'Animal Cop'-style programs present owners who are mostly poor, and many of them are black or Hispanic, and this is never addressed or considered as a possible mitigating factor, or as some sort of structural problem which might be ameliorated in order to help the treatment of animals. The problem is presented as one of individual pathology, no matter what the situation. Needless to say almost all the ASPCA officers and vets portrayed, the population of professionals which 'deal with' these personal responsibility lapses, are white. The one exception is Detroit, and although some of the officers and staff are black, an even larger percentage of the offender population is also black and receives the same type of narrative treatment (They shoot dogs! Those barbarians!). The issue only gets more stark as Animal Planet films internationally, where one would think it would be difficult to avoid some sort of diversity. Yet there is not a single one of its international wildlife shows, that I know of, that focuses on a protagonist of color. Be s/he scientist, preservationist, vet, or volunteer, s/he is almost always a young, conventionally attractive white person, except in rare cases when she is an eccentric older white living in Africa, or, more rarely, South America or Asia. The message is always the same: whites save animals. Natives threaten animals, or at the very most provide manual labor for whites in their efforts to save animals. The network is particularly tone-deaf in the matter of Chimp Eden, which is set in South Africa for heaven's sake, and yet the sanctuary staff's racial makeup or history is not considered worth noting.
It goes without saying that no one should shoot or otherwise be cruel to a dog, and that endangered species should be protected and nurtured. It is also probably true that Caucasians are currently overrepresented in the animal-based professions in America and Europe, just as they are overrepresented in the professions generally. PBS, which is usually pretty attuned to racial representation, shows a lot of whites on its nature programs too. But there are ways to present a certain unbalanced reality in ways that do not normalize or exacerbate it (and there is a large international population of animal professionals of color to be portrayed as well). Perpetuating colonialist notions of an ignorant and cruel populace, whether foreign or domestic, completely ignores contextual realities that might actually help solve the problem if they are acknowledged.