Since the first episode in 2002, I’m a Celebrity has attracted millions of viewers who eagerly tune in for the latest updates on what their favourite (or perhaps least favourite) celebrity has been up to in the jungle. Like almost all other veterinary professionals I know, I have never watched an episode as the whole basis of this show holds no appeal to me whatsoever. But I can understand that it does appeal to others and that’s great…each to their own.
Love it or loathe it, I’m a Celebrity has undeniably attracted a high number of complaints regarding the use (or some might say abuse) of animals in the shows. Concern has been expressed by viewers, animal welfare groups such as the RSPCA, and by veterinary organisations who have repeatedly called for the show to protect the welfare of animals used during filming, and to ensure compliance with the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, duty of care; the same legislation that you or I would be required to comply with as animal owners.
What exactly are vets concerned about?
There are two main areas that give veterinary professionals cause for concern.
Individual animal welfare
In the UK we are known as a nation of animal lovers. And we can be proud that animal health and welfare standards here are some of the highest in the world. The main legislation around this is the 2006 Animal Welfare Act which is underpinned by the Five Welfare Needs. These are derived from the Five Freedoms; five globally accepted standards that can be applied to any living being, as all deserve the right to humane treatment.
The Five Freedoms are:
- Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and the provision of a suitable diet
- Freedom from discomfort by provision of a safe and healthy environment
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment if necessary
- Freedom to express normal behaviour, in part by the provision of suitable space in which animal may choose to interact or indeed avoid others
- Freedom from fear and distress to prevent mental suffering, by provision of a safe space that is not overcrowded
From what we see on the screen, the veterinary community considers that animals used in I’m a Celebrity are not being afforded these freedoms. And as such are not receiving humane treatment.
Throughout the show’s long history, we have seen thousands upon thousands of bugs poured over contestants; with many being crushed, injured or killed in the ensuing panic. Creatures who would naturally be living quiet, sometimes solitary lives are forced into close confines with others; often crawling over one another in their distressed attempt to escape. Others have been eaten alive during bushtucker trials; including a spider in one 2015 episode which sparked many hundreds of complaints to Ofcom and ITV. But over which no action was ever taken. And this lack of respect for welfare has not just been applied to invertebrate “bugs”.
OK, “Bushtucker trials” no longer involve the eating of live animals
However, it took 19 series, a change of location and a global pandemic to make this change; was it anything to do with animal welfare? Insects and spiders continue to be used in other trials, along with snakes, reptiles, rats and birds. The animals in question regularly show clear signs of fear and distress. They are denied the freedom to move away or escape this distress; ironically a freedom that is afforded to the human participants in this spectacle who must merely confess to their “celebrity” status in order to be released.
During one 2018 episode, for example, a snake, trapped in a box, showed clear signs of distress as a contestant repeatedly placed her hand into the box beside it, reaching for her prize. Unable to escape this stressful situation the snake eventually struck out and was flung from the box onto the floor. During another episode a contestant crawled through reptiles including bearded dragons, snakes and a crocodile; all of whom had been confined to small containers unable to escape this threat of attack, injury or death.
The impact on animal welfare in the UK
As exotic animal vet and British Veterinary Association president Daniella Dos Santos explained back in 202;, “The welfare of animals used on television or other media outlets should be of the highest standard as this can influence public behaviours and views on appropriate treatment of animals”. While many cultures include insects in their diet for example, these are usually slaughtered beforehand in as humane a manner as possible; not dismembered piece by piece whilst still alive, all in the name of a bushtucker trial.
The UK has strict legislation regarding welfare at the point of slaughter of animals and rightly so. In 2009 two I’m a Celebrity contestants (who demonstrated no slaughter expertise) killed a rat and ate it. This sends a message to some viewers that it is ok for them to do the same with any animal they deem appropriate.
Snakes and reptiles often feature in the show; which indirectly promotes the idea of these animals being kept as pets, but these are not easy animals to care for. Most exotic species or non-traditional companion animals (NTCAs) have very specific environmental and welfare requirements. They often prefer not to be handled much at all; certainly not in the rough manner that becomes normalised by what we see on I’m a Celebrity. The welfare of these exotic animals as pets in the UK is already a significant concern within the veterinary profession. A 2019 survey found that half of the exotic pets vets saw were not having their welfare needs met. And in 2022, 81% of vets surveyed reported concerns over the welfare of NTCA’s due largely to irresponsible animal ownership.
Why is this disregard for animal welfare allowed to continue?
Unfortunately, invertebrates (those animals without a spine, including insects and spiders) are not as well protected under welfare legislation as vertebrates including reptiles, snakes and mammals. As humans we don’t empathise with them in the way we do with cats, dogs and rabbits. And in fact are often fearful of them (myself included when it comes to spiders!). Imagine tuning in to I’m a Celebrity and seeing fluffy rabbits in their hundreds being tumbled from a height on top of each other over frantic contestants. Or puppies and kittens being climbed over, unable to escape or roughly manhandled out of the way to secure a prize. If it’s not fluffy and cute, do we really think it doesn’t experience pain, distress and fear?
Even when legislation does exist, the punishment for contravening it is often insignificant, as was the case with the killing of a rat in 2009
Two contestants appeared in court in Australia over it and a fine was issued. ITV made an apology, though not for the unnecessary and unskilled killing of the rat. Rather the apology was to the celebrities involved, for the fact that ITV gave the go ahead for the rat to be killed on the grounds that there “would not be any harmful effects”, being “unaware that killing a rat could be an offence”.
Ultimately though, money talks
If I started terrifying reptiles for fun or keeping them piled on top of one another in tiny containers for entertainment; or deliberately scared your pet until it tried to bite me then threw it across the room to get to my prize (coffee); I would quite rightly lose my job and my membership of the veterinary profession too. I would be reported to the RSPCA/SSPCA. And I would likely end up having any animals I owned taken from my care; not to mention being fined and banned from keeping animals in the future. But when it comes to big money shows and entertaining millions of viewers, the same rules don’t seem to apply.
So, what can be done?
Short of several million viewers suddenly switching off from I’m a Celebrity; which even I have to admit won’t happen for animal welfare, the show will go on. Personally I see no reason why celebrities of all kinds should not continue to sit around a jungle camp; going about their daily business or squabbling with one another in front of 9 million people they’ve never met if that’s what everyone wants to do. But for goodness sake, lets #GetAnimalsOutOfThere
Some vets have specialist experience working on film and TV productions
As such they are in a unique position to safeguard animal welfare. But also to help production crews with how to get the best optics for screen when animals are involved. Having a vet on set would also give reassurance to some of us who are not just disgusted by the complete disregard for animals that I’m a Celebrity appears to have; but concerned at what this says about ITV as a network and their involvement in other productions.
The British Veterinary Association (BVA) along with the British Veterinary Nursing Association (BVNA) and the British Zoological Society (BVZS), have repeatedly reached out to I’m a Celebrity producers asking for reassurance that a veterinarian is present on set, that there is an awareness of the Five Freedoms and that these are applied throughout production. You can read their 2019 letter here.
Unfortunately, as yet, I’m a Celebrity and ITV have declined to engage in any meaningful way with the veterinary community or any other organisations concerned with animal welfare
Sadly, I think this speaks volumes. As a fellow vet commented in an article last year, “it makes you wonder, why would a TV show which profits from the use of animals not want to engage in a conversation about the public desire to improve standards?”. So, switch channels or complain to Ofcom if you like. But as a supposedly animal-loving nation faced with a TV programme showing complete disregard for animal welfare; it’s also time to put the pressure on ITV and I’m a Celebrity and see how they react when the stakes are high. Don’t look back on this welfare disaster and think, I can’t believe I watched that happen. Get involved now so you can tune in to series 100 and think, I’m glad I was part of that change. Support the BVA #GetAnimalsOutOfThere campaign to raise awareness and help build something better.