Earlier this month, I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! returned for its much-anticipated 22nd season.
The ITV show sees a group of celebrities live in a camp in the Australian outback for around four weeks. They are only provided with basic rations, and have to take part in tasks – known as “Bushtucker Trials” – to earn food. These trials see them attempt to collect stars, which they can then exchange for sustenance for the whole camp.
It’s a clever set-up, and one that’s proved hugely lucrative for ITV. This year’s opening episode drew in two million more viewers than last year, ratings that can likely be largely attributed to the fact that Conservative politician and former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock is taking part.
“He’s going to be chewing a lot of kangaroo penis in the jungle,” one gleeful viewer wrote on Twitter. “Please give use Matt Hancock gagging on some sheep testicles,” pleaded another. “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’s aired, I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! has been heavily dependent on animal use. 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 has been criticized by animal rights groups for years, but the backlash has seemingly been ignored. Other than a reported ban on eating live insects in 2019, not much seems to have changed. Tasks are – if anything – getting more extreme. This isn’t 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 unpleasant animal parts (see the aforementioned sheep testicles). Or, subjected to situations with “creepy crawlies,” snakes, crocodiles, rats, or any other beings humans deem unpleasant.
Already in this series, celebrities have crawled through dark holes filled with insects, been confined to a small room full of pigeons, and been buried in a coffin of snakes.
On the Thursday of the first week (November 10), Hancock took on a trial called “Tentacles of Terror.” He was tasked with entering a semi-underwater cage that gradually got lower 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 small crocs.
In one section, snakes were seen apparently piled on top of each other. In another, eels were similarly confined together in a small container. As the cage lowered, the larger crocodile was seen swimming to its wired edges.
Animal cruelty on TV
This year has sparked renewed outrage from groups including PETA and the RSPCA. The former has urged hosts Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly to resign from the show due to animal abuse. Wildlife expert Chris Packham has also criticized the show, branding the use of animals as “medieval.”
ITV themselves responded to Packham’s criticism, with a spokesperson telling the Mirror that they have a strict “environmental plan” in place on the show (whatever that means).
The spokesperson added that welfare and safety is “always the primary priority on any of our programmes.” And, that they have experienced animal handlers on site.
“We cannot stress enough that we have rigorous protocols in place to ensure that animals are handled safely at all times, before, during and after any filming has taken place, in compliance with all regional and national laws,” they said.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Aside from the dubious claim that animal welfare is a “primary priority” of a show that’s built on their exploitation, attempting to justify treatment on compliance with a country’s “welfare laws” will always fall short. Such laws are often non-existent, and are always inadequate.
In New South Wales, where I’m A Celeb is filmed, there is the 1979 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. The act covers vertebrates (animals with a backbone) and crustaceans (like lobsters and crabs). It supposedly ensures that animals are treated in a “humane” way, but it doesn’t stop the show subjecting them to unnatural – and likely frightening – conditions. Still, to give it credit, the Act does prevent the animals it covers from being eaten alive or actively tortured and killed by contestants and crew.
But the same can’t be said for insects. Insects aren’t covered by any welfare laws at all. They are by far the most abused beings on the show. It’s likely that millions of them have been squashed, thrown, and eaten alive throughout its duration. Most humans believe insects to be little more than an annoyance, rather than sentient beings with a will to live. But a huge amount of scientific research has rubbished any notion that insects can’t feel pain.
A 2019 University of Sydney study of fruit flies, published in journal Science Advances, found that there’s evidence to suggest that insects have the capacity to feel persistent – or chronic – pain after sustaining an injury.
One of the fruit flies in the study had one of the nerves in their legs damaged, which was then allowed to heal. After the healing process, researchers found that the fly’s other legs became hypersensitive. Study author Professor Neely said: “After the animal is hurt once badly, they are hypersensitive and try to protect themselves for the rest of their lives.”
Pain is a subjective experience, and it’s difficult to measure in any animal, including cats and dogs. While we’re almost certain mammals feel pain like us due to their similar reactions and physiology, the experience of insects is less apparent and harder to prove. We can’t know for sure if insects feel pain like we do, but if they do, the scale of this pain inflicted on them on I’m A Celeb is unimaginable.
Responding to ITV’s defense of animal use, PETA’s Vice President of UK Programmes, Elisa Allen, told Plant Based News (PBN): “I’m a Celeb producers are talking out of their hat. The cruelty on this show is evident and continuous. The public is well past believing these excuses – their eyes do not deceive them, and it’s clear that animals used for the show are subjected to extreme stress, fear, and trauma. There is simply no excuse for exploiting animals for entertainment, and it’s time for this needless abuse to end.”
An untouchable show
I’m A Celeb is one of the longest running reality shows, and is at this point as much a part of British culture as queuing and going to the pub. As such, criticizing it for abuse will likely be seen by most people as absurd. After all, what’s not funny about Gillian McKeith getting trapped in an underground crate full of rats?
Here lies the issue. Speciesism is so ingrained in our society that animals are seen as nothing more than playthings to be exploited by humans at will. I’m A Celeb not only reflects this, but it also enforces it. A great deal has changed in the last 20 years, and there is a growing understanding of animal sentience and their ability to feel pain and emotions just like we do. The fact that ITV is refusing to reflect this shift in thinking, and is instead portraying particular animals as “scary” and “disgusting” to its audience (many of whom are children), will have very real consequences for how the public views animals.
By showing national treasures Ant and Dec giggling away while a box full of visibly terrified rats is poked and prodded by the former Health Secretary, we are teaching millions of people that it’s not only acceptable – but funny – to abuse them.