Earlier this month, I’m a celebrity… get me out of here! is back for its long-awaited 22nd season.
The ITV show features a group of celebrities living in a field in the Australian outback for around four weeks. They are supplied with only basic rations and must take part in tasks – known as “Bushtucker Trials” – to earn food. These Trials see them attempt to collect stars, which they can then trade for the entire camp’s sustenance.
It’s a clever setup and has proved hugely profitable for ITV. This year’s opening episode attracted two million more viewers than last year, ratings that can largely be attributed to the fact that Conservative politician and former UK health secretary Matt Hancock is taking part.
“He’s about to chew a lot of kangaroo penis in the jungle,” wrote one cheerful viewer on Twitter. “Please use Matt Hancock gagging on some sheep testicles,” pleaded another. “I’m just waiting for Matt Hancock to arrive so I can vote for him to eat kangaroo anus,” added a third.
In the 20 years it aired, I’m a celebrity… get me out of here! was heavily dependent on the use of animals. Almost every Bushtucker Trial involves the exploitation of an incomprehensible number of animals and insects. And it’s seen as nothing more than light entertainment.
Beings have been eaten alive, crushed, thrown, confined to small spaces, subjected to unnatural environments, and much, much more.
“I’m a celebrity” controversy.
I’m a celebrity it has been criticized for years by animal rights groups, but the backlash has seemingly been ignored. Aside from the reported ban on eating live insects in 2019, not much seems to have changed. The tasks are, if anything, becoming more extreme. This is not surprising: the entire show is structured around animals. And it’s very difficult to imagine where it would be without it.
The most popular trials involve celebrities being forced to eat unsavory animal parts (see the aforementioned sheep testicles). Or, subjected to situations with “creepy crawlies”, snakes, crocodiles, rats or any other being that humans find unpleasant.
Already in this series, celebrities have crawled through dark holes filled with bugs, been confined to a small room full of pigeons, and been buried in a snake coffin.
On Thursday of the first week (November 10), Hancock faced a trial called “Tentacles of Terror”. He was tasked with entering a semi-submarine cage that gradually lowered as he collected more stars. A crocodile was swimming around him and there were 10 sections containing other animals like snakes, water lizards, eels and baby crocodiles.
In one section, the snakes were seen apparently piled on top of each other. In another, the eels were similarly confined together in a small container. As the cage lowered, the larger crocodile was seen swimming towards its wired edges.
Animal cruelty on TV
This year has sparked renewed outrage from groups including PETA and the RSPCA. The former urged hosts Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly to step down from the show due to animal abuse. Wildlife expert Chris Packham also criticized the show, branding the use of animals as “medieval”.
ITV itself has responded to Packham’s criticism, with a spokesperson telling al Mirror that they have a strict “environmental plan” in place on the show (whatever that means).
The spokesperson added that well-being and safety are “always the top priority in all of our programs”. And that they have experienced animal handlers on site.
“We cannot stress enough that we have stringent protocols in place to ensure animals are handled safely at all times, before, during and after any shooting, in compliance with all regional and national laws,” they said.
There is a lot to unpack here. Aside from the dubious claim that animal welfare is a “prime priority” of a show built on animal exploitation, attempts to justify treatment based on compliance with a country’s “welfare laws” will always fail. Such laws are often non-existent and are always inadequate.
In New South Wales, where I’m a celebrity is shot, there is the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1979. The act covers vertebrates (animals with a backbone) and crustaceans (such as lobsters and crabs). It supposedly ensures that the animals are treated in a “humane” way, but it doesn’t stop the show from subjecting them to unnatural – and probably appalling – conditions. However, to give him credit, the law prevents the animals he covers from being eaten alive or actively tortured and killed by the contestants and crew.
But the same cannot be said for insects. Insects are not covered by any welfare law at all. They are by far the most abused beings on the show. It is likely that millions of them were crushed, thrown and eaten alive throughout its duration. Most humans believe that insects are little more than nuisances, rather than sentient beings with a will to live. But a huge amount of scientific research has swept away any notion that insects can’t feel pain.
A 2019 University of Sydney study on fruit flies, published in the journal scientific advances, found that there is evidence to suggest that insects have the ability to experience persistent or chronic pain after sustaining an injury.
One of the fruit flies in the study had a damaged leg nerve, which was then allowed to heal. After the healing process, the researchers found that the fly’s other legs became hypersensitive. Study author Professor Neely said: ‘After the animal has been seriously injured once, they are hypersensitive and try to protect themselves for the rest of their lives.’
Pain is a subjective experience and is difficult to measure in any animal, including cats and dogs. While we’re almost certain that mammals feel pain like us due to their similar reactions and physiology, the experience of insects is less obvious and harder to prove. We can’t know for sure whether insects feel pain like us, but if they do, the extent of this pain inflicted on them on I’m a celebrity it is unimaginable.
In response to ITV’s advocacy of animal use, Elisa Allen, Vice President of UK Programs at PETA, said Plant Based News (PB extension): “I’m a celebrity the producers speak off their hats. The cruelty in this show is evident and ongoing. The public does not believe these excuses: their eyes do not deceive them and it is clear that the animals used for the show are subject to extreme stress, fear and trauma. There is simply no excuse to exploit animals for entertainment, and it is time for this needless abuse to end.”
An untouchable show
I’m a celebrity it’s one of the longest running reality shows, and at this point it’s as much a part of British culture as queuing up and going to the pub. As such, criticizing him for abuse will likely be seen by most people as absurd. After all, what’s not funny about Gillian McKeith being trapped in an underground chest full of rats?
Herein lies the problem. Speciesism is so ingrained in our society that animals are seen as nothing more than toys that can be exploited by humans at will. I’m a celebrity it not only reflects this, but also enforces it. A lot has changed in the last 20 years and there is a growing understanding of the sensitivity of animals and their ability to feel pain and emotion just like us. The fact that ITV refuses to reflect this shift in thinking, and is instead portraying particular animals as ‘scary’ and ‘disgusting’ to its audiences (many of whom are children), will have very real consequences for how audiences view animals. .
By showing national treasures Ant and Dec cackling as a box full of visibly terrified rats are poked and prodded by the former Health Minister, we’re teaching millions that it’s not only acceptable but fun to mistreat them.