Yesterday evening I watched the premiere episode of “Extinct or Alive”, Animal Planet’s latest entry into the genre of cryptid1-hunting TV shows. I have a love/hate relationship with these shows, in that I love watching them so I can hate them. Most of them are excellent demonstrations of the vast gap between what laypeople think wildlife science looks like and what actual scientists do. Animal Planet, especially, has been a repeat offender with these sorts of shows, putting out lots of shows in which people search for cryptids but, in the process, make outrageous claims, demonstrate a lack of basic information about science, or just do stupid things that make no sense. “Extinct or Alive” is much, much better.
I have long believed that a good cryptid-hunting show could help explain science to people. Why doesn’t your eyewitness account of a Bigfoot establish it for science? Well, let’s see what a proper investigation which would meet scientific standards would look like. This would demonstrate the difference between “I am saying that I saw” and “we have evidence other people can examine”. “Extinct or Alive” is basically this show, although it’s not perfect.
Let’s start with the bad. I expected lots of bad (hence the title) but my actual complaints are few.
First, there’s not a lot of clarity on how different the Zanzibar leopard (the subject of the first show) is from mainland leopards. It would be easy to believe that most scientists believe it to be a separate species, when the range of opinions seems to range from “subspecies” to “very mildly different African leopard”.
Second, there’s the constant mention of the coelacanth. Admittedly, the host (Forrest Galante) has a personal connection to the story of the coelacanth’s rediscovery, but the coelacanth is a pretty odd case. Whether a deep-sea fish can make it millions of years without being recorded as a fossil is pretty different than the question of whether a big cat species can survive on a heavily-populated island.
Third, Forrest has a tendency to talk about himself as a lone wolf maverick, and yet in the first episode he is in contact with two other people working on this issue! Forrest seems to bring some real expertise to the table (unlike many other cryptid-hunter hosts) but it’s clear that it didn’t take Forrest to get people interested in the issue of species that may not really be extinct. Forrest also has the unfortunate habit of talking about the species he is looking for as if they are alive and need our help to stay this way, when this is only hopefully true of them.
But what about the good?
First, this is a cryptid-hunting show, not a monster-hunting show. The Zanzibar leopard is treated as a real cat. Nobody claims that it is the most dangerous animal on Zanzibar or that people lived in constant terror of it. Oddly, this is sort of true in Zanzibar – it was the largest big predator (aside from humans) and its reputation as a witch’s familiar did make people view it with real suspicion. However, Forrest treats this as an animal whose persistence into the present needs to be verified for conservation issues. This is in marked contrast to a show I once watched about the potential for thylacines to still be alive, which spent every spare minute trying to convince you that what was effectively a marsupial coyote was a deadly killer.
Second, the creature under investigation skews towards the plausible end of the spectrum. Zanzibar is under-studied enough that since the Zanzibar leopard’s supposed extinction date a subspecies of servaline genet was discovered there, and in the 22 years between that discovery and the filming of this episode of “Extinct or Alive” only two photos of that genet had ever been taken. (As it turns out, “Extinct or Alive” managed to improve that number. This only reinforces how easy it is to miss animals in Zanzibar.) Moreover, the leopard was known to have been there (it’s a known species, not an entirely new one) and the gap between now and its disappearance is only a matter of decades, not centuries or (in some of the crazier cryptid cases, millions of years).
Third, Forrest appears to know about animals. In my coelacanth article (referenced above) I made fun of “Expedition Mungo”, a show that lives on in infamy for several reason, one of which is the show’s host picking up a very human-like (although also clearly non-human), but very small, skull off the forest floor in Africa and asking someone what it was2. A monkey. Seriously, what other options were there? Forrest, on the other hand, seems to be a decent naturalist, and shares his love of animals with the viewer. Again, this reinforces the “looking for poorly-known creatures” angle against the “looking for monsters” angle so many other shows have.
Fourth, alternative hypotheses are made on-camera. Alternative hypotheses are extremely important in science, but many cryptid-hunters seem convinced that every small sign of a cryptid is proof positive. Forrest gets footage of something spotted very, very close to his trail camera and proceeds to explain that while this could be a Zanzibar leopard it could also be a servaline genet. In fact, after working you up about how this could be a leopard he pops your bubble with the second hypothesis. This isn’t just correct, it’s a good pedagogy, since people who were convinced that they were looking at a leopard will suddenly lose confidence and, hopefully, be more careful about such confidence in the future.
Fifth, the show spends time on actual science. Forrest gets a good, uninterrupted chunk of time to talk about sampling protocols and the importance of collecting as much data as possible. I think they cut the scene before he finishes actually writing the date on the sample container, but you understand why he is doing this, and frankly I don’t need to watch him write it out, I liked the fact that he explained to the audience why you always write the date, the time, and the location on your sampling containers (along with marking the point in your GPS, even if you’re pretty sure this sample isn’t the species of interest – all of this was mentioned by Forrest on camera).
Sixth, the show got what are really impressive results for such a short time frame. (Yes, I could complain about doing science as a travel show where the main scientist hops from continent to continent, but if it funds some actual science I’ll live with it.) This isn’t the good thing. The good thing is that the show gets results that would send many other shows over the moon and then Forrest says that it isn’t enough. The burden of scientific evidence hasn’t been met, and explains what else he will need and starts working on collecting that data. So, by the end of the show you have good reason to believe that the Zanzibar leopard is not extinct but you are also aware that Forrest believes that he needs DNA evidence to absolutely prove that this particular type of leopard is really present. Moreover, you know from the end credits that there is continuing work on that front – Forrest coming in with some cameras wasn’t the end, it was the preliminary work to a longer project.
So, what could ruin this for me? Well, if the problems I mentioned get larger and the good points get smaller that could make the show worse. What I really want to see, though, is how the show handles definitively poor evidence. What happens when they go somewhere and literally every lead is a dud, and it becomes apparent to us at home that there never was anything to this story except hoaxers or mistakes? Will Forrest say on-camera that he thinks there isn’t anything there, that the species he targeted really is extinct? Or will we get the all-too-typical hand waving and the promise that there’s always missed evidence?
However, for now, I think this show teaches some good science in an interesting way. Let’s hope that continues.
UPDATE: Also SPOILER. In the second episode Forrest does not find what he’s looking for. However, he does find something else which matches the descriptions he was given of the mystery creature fairly well. He’s pretty up-front that he thinks the villagers are not describing the extinct species he was looking for but this other rare, but known to be extant, species. Good job, Forrest!