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Discovery vowed to show real science. Was ‘Venom Hunters’ full of snake oil?

🕐 6 min read

Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s annual fin-fest and ratings jackpot, seemed to get solid reviews this year from scientists, which hasn’t always been the case. In 2013, experts vociferously accused the network of dropping its already dwindling scientific standards to a new low. The reason for the outrage was a now-infamous fake documentary about an extinct mega-shark called “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives.” The derision prompted Discovery executives last year to vow to return to a focus on science and research.

So Christie Wilcox, an evolutionary biologist and venom specialist, says she was curious to see how that commitment played out in a new Discovery show, “Venom Hunters,” which aired in February and March and is currently airing in India. The network described it as a reality program following “brave teams of expert snake hunters” in the United States and Australia “who have the guts and skills to chase down the world’s most venomous snakes and collect this highly toxic liquid.” Their motive, the network said, was “the chance to save lives,” because venom can be used to make anti-venom that treats snakebites, and it is in short supply.

Wilcox was not impressed. So unimpressed, in fact, that last week she published a four-part investigative takedown of the series on her popular Discover magazine blog, Science Sushi. Authentic Entertainment, the show’s production company, told her it was “proud of the series,” but it has not disputed her conclusions.

We talked to Wilcox, who lives in Hawaii, about what she found. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: You’re a postdoctoral researcher with plenty of work to do. Why spend time investigating a cable TV show?

A: I happen to know a lot of venom researchers, and when the show’s promos started coming out and news was trickling out this was going to happen, a lot of them voiced concerns and questions. My feelers are generally tuned toward anything that might be going weird or wrong with science in the media. Initially, I was just going to comment on the fact that it was inaccurately portraying what they do, by asking every single person I know who does venom production, ‘Hey, why aren’t you doing this show?’, and them explaining to me that they were asked and rejected it. Then during that process, a couple of the people I was talking to brought up questions about the legality and whether they had permits.

Q: How did you find out?

A: I sort of looked at what was being done on the show – or claiming to be done on the show – and began writing it down for each episode: So and so is in this state, catching these snakes, producing venom for whoever and taking them to wherever. I broke that down and fielded [through the Freedom of Information Act] requests in every state, looking for permits, hunting licenses – basically any sort of license that would allow them to capture and/or milk snakes.

Q: And did you find any?

A: The part that I find most upsetting was based on what the show said they did. For example, if the show said, “We’re collecting snakes for venom research. We’re going to go out and milk them and take that venom back to a scientific lab.” If an animal is being collected for scientific research, that comes with stipulations regarding scientific research. Or if they said, “We’re collecting snakes in Texas and taking them to Florida,” transporting snakes across state lines come with certain stipulations. Every state you pass through with a snake in your car, you have to meet certain requirements.

I couldn’t find permits even for people and teams that were more legitimate – they had venom research experience or were well-known as snake collectors. These were teams that, in my mind, should have known better. It turns out they did have the permits they needed for what they actually did – not for what they claimed they did. For example, on the show, it talked about collecting scientific research and showed them taking [a snake] to a supposed lab. The lab was not a lab; it was a call center.

So they didn’t break the law in what they did. They just didn’t have the permits for what they pretended to do on screen.

Q: So then what’s the big deal?

A: A lot of people in the venom science community were upset about how their field is portrayed. The show talked about “liquid gold” and made it seem like this is going to be a lucrative career option for those who want to catch snakes. That, to them, was just offensive. We don’t need more people catching snakes, especially people who aren’t trained in how to catch them humanely, not injure them and not get injured themselves.

I was personally incensed at the way they talked about snakebite mortality worldwide and used that to justify sending these people out in Oklahoma or Texas to catch snakes. It’s a huge problem, but it’s not a huge problem in the United States or in Australia, places with lots of access to medical resources and care. It’s like saying we’re going to catch mosquitoes to deal with malaria and catching the mosquitoes in Texas. Some of the [shortage] has to do with the science of producing anti-venom; a lot has to do with politics involving pharmaceutical sales and medical access. Even storage: Anti-venom needs to be refrigerated. And there are big initiatives that are trying to tackle these very real public-health problems. To portray it as if I catch a rattlesnake in Texas, it’s going to help with this worldwide problem, is wrong.

Q: About those snakes: How did they come off in the show?

A: A lot of the messaging about snakes was they were dangerous and deadly. And yes, they can be. There was also a cavalier attitude toward the safety of the animals and people involved. They played up the drama. Real professionals who work with snakes, bites are at the top of their mind. And they take all sorts of safety precautions to make sure they don’t get bitten and the snake doesn’t get harmed.

Q: But it’s TV! TV needs drama.

A: People do have a natural curiosity and interest in science and nature. People love animals and want to know more about animals. I think it’s important that people who want to know more about what’s going on in their world know the truth. There’s no reason to fake it. What these scientists do, the people who are in Africa trying to fight against thousands of [snakebite] deaths every year, is amazing. It’s some of the greatest melding of science and social science.

Q: You seem really into venom. What’s cool about it?

A: Oh, God, what isn’t cool about venom? It’s fascinating just because of how well it works to screw up our bodies. It’s fascinating because you’re talking about animals being able to derail and dismantle the essential physiological systems of other animals while not harming themselves. These venoms do activities that we need. Anticoagulants, for example, are hugely important to the medical industry. You have all these little chemical engineers, and they’ve figured out how to make chemicals that we can’t even make yet. There’s a potential to turn venoms into these game-changing pharmaceuticals for everything from HIV to diabetes to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s.

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