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During the last 20 minutes of “Eaten Alive," in what has become the most talked about part of the Discovery Channel’s anaconda documentary, my focus kept going between watching the version of Paul Rosolie being constricted on screen and the upright, intact Paul Rosolie standing in front of me.
I’ve known Paul for nearly seven years now.
We struck up a completely unlikely friendship during a semester abroad in India. I don’t share his intense passion for wildlife (his wife, Gowri, once pulled a tick off my leg and I replayed the event in my head like a near-death experience), but over the course of knowing him I’ve been consistently intrigued and impressed by his relationship with the outdoors.
Yet like so many who watching “Eaten Alive” Sunday night, I couldn’t help but wonder, how did we get here?
To a place where my best friend is on TV, limp on the ground waiting to be eaten headfirst by a giant snake, and the thing people were outraged about was that he didn’t let his bones crunch to complete the stunt.
Nearly two years ago Paul first told about the idea for the show and I freaked out much like everyone else: "No! What?! How!?" And then, after him calming me down, "Why?"
I know that the “why” was the question paramount in Paul’s mind too when he considered what working with Discovery Channel would do from him -- and for his growing career that’s thus far been about serious conservation work.
Maybe it’s because I don’t have the same passion for animals that I was at first more concerned with Paul’s safety than the snakes. But I know I wasn’t concerned about the snake because I knew Paul would never do anything that would endanger a species he loves.
I can remember one time on a hike with Paul, I was on the alert for sounds of bears, or fox, or really anything that made the leaves rustle. Paul meanwhile, was listening for sounds of humans. As he told me then, nature has a pattern to it, humans are the unpredictable ones, and in most cases, the ones to be feared.
So when it came time to be fed to the snake, I could see why he was confident.
In case you missed the actual dialogue coming from Paul while he was being constricted, he basically narrated every move the snake was about to make.
He could tell from its behavior that at first the giant green anaconda had not been interested, but then saw him as prey, and Paul knew exactly when the snake was going to strike his protective gear.
This is probably not a spoiler to anyone, but just in case that’s your warning: Paul did not end up getting eaten by a snake on television.
In headlines the next day, Gawker called him dumb. Others called him insane. To the media, “Eaten Alive” has served as low-hanging fruit in a series of missteps by Discovery Channel. In the wake of the show being aired, reporters have filled story after story with hate-tweets from disappointed viewers.
But Paul is not dumb. Far from it. Paul is desperate.
In a way I will never fully understand, he loves the rainforest. Paul had hoped with doing this documentary that people would be concerned about the snake and carry their concern over to the environment the snake is in. The first signs of backlash from PETA, which started a petition for Discovery to pull the show, were encouraging to him.
I submit as evidence, our text messages the day after the first commercial of “Eaten Alive” aired:
Me: It’s prob time to make your facebook private
Paul: Hahaha u think? :)
Me: So nuts
Paul: Haha yeah these people are always out there. But one thing is brilliant – I’ve never seen such outcry and support for a snake! So cool!
Me: Hahaha I guess that’s one way of looking at it
It’s frustrating beyond anything I’ve ever felt to watch people doubt Paul’s intentions.
No, this was not a lifelong dream of his to be eaten by a snake, this was a plea to get people to pay attention to the rainforest. And in totally ignoring the first hour and a half of “Eaten Alive,” which beautifully showcased a region of the world that is being destroyed, we’re doing the snakes, and ourselves, a huge disservice.
It’s easy to criticize “Eaten Alive” on a superficial level -- the name essentially served as a failed premise that brought in huge ratings for the Discovery Channel -- but only because it’s hard to talk about the context in which the show appeared and the massive threats that face the rainforest ecosystem. Here's an example of a deleted scene that Paul fought to get into the show, but was ultimately cut.
For anyone that asked why Paul didn’t just go the straight conversation route, he already had.
Just months before “Eaten Alive” aired, he released a book, “Mother of God.” While it was well received and praised by environmental heavyweights like Jane Goodall and Bear Grylls, when compared to the attention “Eaten Alive” garnered, it was basically ignored.
As were the scenes Discovery shot over their two months with Paul where he spoke about the beauty of the region, the need for conservation, and why it’s more than just the animals that will be impacted if the jungle is destroyed.
In the next few weeks, Paul will leave for India where he will reunite with Gowri (now of “Are you OK?” fame), and then head back to the jungle to do what he’s done for the last 10 years: work to protect it.
Say what you want about Paul. It’s your right to hate him, to feel like he wasted two hours of your life, and to call for his death via an animal mauling on Twitter, but realize within that, you’re feeding into the culture that allowed for “Eaten Alive” to exist in the first place.
This is where we’re at.
Paul took on an extreme stunt to match the extreme threat from deforestation, and people are upset that he’s still alive and functioning well enough to continue fighting.
The Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest, where “Eaten Alive” was filmed, is under threat from loggers and miners and that’s the point that nearly everyone missed in their watching of the show.
Paul’s research (which, yes, includes things like wrestling snakes to catch, measure and weigh them) is part of a grassroots effort to get the Peruvian government to protect the Madre de Dios as a national park. You know what doesn’t help in that effort? Intense and completely fleeting panic about the safety of one snake.
This is not fully the fault of the viewers. Certainly a bulk of the blame lies with Discovery in its outrageous marketing.
I encourage you to watch a video Paul made, “An Unseen World,” which was winner of the 2013 United Nations Forum on Forests short film contest. Paul made this video unprompted, unfunded and independently. It’s not heart-pounding action, but it’s Paul doing what he does best, talking about the beauty of the jungle.
You can continue to be outraged that a network duped you with its marketing, or you can empathize and side with a man who literally put his life on the line to get you to pay attention.