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(Not) Eaten Alive: A Snake Tale, Made For TV

A still image from the Discovery TV special <em>Eaten Alive,</em> which angered some viewers after it aired Sunday.
A still image from the Discovery TV special Eaten Alive, which angered some viewers after it aired Sunday.

The outcome of an outlandish TV stunt Sunday night didn't go down well with many viewers, who say they were duped into expecting that the Discovery special Eaten Alive would actually portray a man being ingested by an anaconda.

But that didn't happen, forcing the network to defend the program today by saying it had been naturalist Paul Rosolie's "absolute intention to be eaten alive."

The two-hour show aired to intense interest: More than 20 million people watched Discovery's YouTube trailer for the special, in which Rosolie said, "We're going to get me inside of a snake," adding "You have to go head-first."

Comments like those, and a steady stream of promo trailers featuring Rosolie's custom-made "crushproof" suit, led many viewers to believe they would see a green anaconda wrap itself around Rosolie and swallow him on Sunday night's show. A recent tweet referred to him "feeding himself" to the snake.

After the snake didn't seem to find Rosolie very appetizing — and he called for help when he feared his arm was about to break — the hashtag #EatenAlive became a place for viewers to vent their frustration and make jokes at the show's expense.

Some used the versatile "You had one job" attack, while others reworked a classic rap line by Sir Mix-a-Lot to to say the anaconda "don't want none."

And then there were the photos.

Science writer Jason Bittel had a slightly different take:

On Monday, Discovery said the show did its job of putting new attention on the anaconda's rain forest habitat, while also preserving the safety of all involved:

"Paul created this challenge to get maximum attention for one of the most beautiful and threatened parts of the world, the Amazon Rainforest and its wildlife. He went to great lengths to send this message and it was his absolute intention to be eaten alive. Ultimately, after the snake constricted Paul for over an hour and went for his head, the experiment had to be called when it became clear that Paul would be very seriously injured if he continued on. The safety of Paul, as well as the anaconda, was always our number one priority."

To those who worried that the anaconda was harmed, a Discovery representative says the snake was not injured.

Weeks before it aired, Eaten Alive became the target of both an online petition and a PETA campaign, asking Discovery to cancel its plans to air the show.

Here's what the animal rights group had to say last month:

"Making this snake use up energy by swallowing this fool and then possibly regurgitating him would have left the poor animal exhausted and deprived of the energy that he or she needs."

Today, PETA called the show a "shameful stunt," in which "Paul Rosolie and his crew put this snake through undeniable stress and robbed her of essential bodily resources. She was forced to constrict and then not allowed to eat."

The criticism led an unusual twist, with Gawker, Time and others noting that "a special that was once slammed by animal activists for being 'cruel' to a snake is now being mocked on Twitter for not going far enough," as Time wrote.

Acknowledging the backlash, herpetologist Shawn Heflick, who hosted a Discovery-promoted discussion about the show on Facebook, found a silver lining.

"I am inundated with messages/questions from lay people who want to know more about anacondas because they are curious after the show," Heflick wrote today. "TEACHING MOMENTS. Maybe a glimmering of hope for humanity."

He went on to say he would answer every question he was asked.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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