Creating an animal-free I’m A Celebrity is ‘a win-win for everyone’: An investigation into removing creatures from ITV series

Creating an animal-free I’m A Celebrity is ‘a win-win for everyone’: An investigation into removing creatures from ITV series

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I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! has used live animals in trials since its inception in 2002, but today, their involvement is a point of contention.

Over the years, viewers and animal charities alike have expressed concern that the welfare of the critters, reptiles, and other livestock used in the challenges is compromised for entertainment purposes.

More recently, this concern has ramped up, with the likes of Peta campaigning for a boycott of the show altogether. 

Besides welfare worries, many are tired of tuning in and seeing the same animal-led trials all the time, with dwindling ratings suggesting it is high time for a shake-up.

Many reckon society has moved past Bushtucker Trials involving critters and have called for more creativity when coming up with new games that still invoke the scare element that audiences love so much.

Let’s not forget, ahead of the 19th series in 2019, ITV announced that eating trials would no longer contain live bugs but audiences still tuned in.

Here, investigates what I’m A Celebrity could look like without using animals, how easy it would be to create new bug-free trials, and how viewership could be impacted. We hear from animal charity Peta, former I’m A Celebrity contestant Fatima Whitbread, and a television producer on how the format could be revamped. 

Before we get started, it’s important to note that I’m A Celebrity ensures that animal welfare law is complied with on its production and ITV implements rigorous production practices to ensure that animals are handled safely before, during, and after the filming period.

‘The team at I’m A Celebrity have many years of experience in producing the show and have rigorous protocols in place to ensure that animals are handled safely before, during, and after filming, in compliance with animal welfare law,’ an ITV spokesperson said. ‘Welfare and safety is always our primary priority.’

Procedures in place on I’m A Celebrity

●    ITV Studios uses a specialist licensed animal company that is based on site for the duration of the production. The company has extensive and detailed experience of all animals that are featured and working with animals in film and television. Members of the specialist animal team are present during the recording of every trial and challenge where animals are involved.

●    We ensure that our specialist company holds all required licences including those under the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) Regulations and the Performing Animals Act as required.

●    We work closely with the relevant national and local authorities and regulatory bodies to ensure that the production has appropriate procedures in place and complies with all animal welfare and conservation laws relating to the use of animals in TV and film production.

●    The production has comprehensive on-set measures in place to contain animals during filming, including controlled release zones and grate systems to contain insects used during filming and collect them afterwards.

●    Animals are transported and kept in enclosures on set which are temperature controlled to their individual needs and have been signed off by the relevant local authority following a site visit.
●    The production sources insects that are commercially bred in the UK, and would normally be purchased by zoos and pet stores to feed birds and exotic animals.

●    We donate insects to local wildlife sanctuaries, trusts, and zoos for their exotic animal and bird feed after filming.

●    We regularly review the measures we have in place and develop them in line with any requirements following engagement with the local authority and other regulatory authorities to ensure they are fit for purpose.

Peta has been incredibly vocal about the harming of animals during tasks on I’m A Celebrity in the past and, following the relocation of the competition to Wales from Australia during the pandemic, set up a petition calling for fans to boycott the competition altogether.

When asked what I’m A Celebrity could look like without the harming of animals, Jennifer White, the UK Media and Communications Manager for the charity insisted there are plenty of ways to entertain viewers without causing pain, and called for the powers that be to use them. 

‘We’re in the 21st century, we live in an age of innovation, and there are so many ways that TV producers can entertain audiences without having to exploit and kill animals,’ she tells us. ‘There’s absolutely no reason why they can’t put their heads together and come up with some animal-friendly alternatives for celebrities to take part in. 

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‘It was so disappointing last year when they had the opportunity to completely change formats, when they came to the UK. Instead, they just chose to still go down this route of using animals in these cruel stunts.

‘They’ve been following the same format for a long time now, [and risk falling] out of favour with the British public if they don’t start to change things up.

‘One of the most gripping things about the show is the relationships that the celebrities form in the camp, it’s taking part in trials where they’re in the water or covered in sludge, or mud or gunk, or whatever it is. there’s absolutely no need for animals to be a part of that.’

‘Any of these challenges where animals are either being trampled on or they’re in a small confinement with celebrities,’ she said of the worst tasks. ‘It’s just absolutely awful. I’m sure the suffering is very widespread over all of the challenges.

The I’m A Celebrity Bushtucker Trials have been branded as cruel for a variety of reasons, besides the risk of bugs being squashed to death. In the show’s last series, welfare experts were troubled by naturally solitary corn snakes confined together in boxes, as well as bearded dragons, that require temperatures like their native Australia, exposed to conditions described as ‘freezing cold’ by contestants. There was also outrage when it appeared that a crocodile used in a 2018 trial had its mouth taped shut.

‘When they did the live eating challenges as well, people were horrified to see spiders being eaten alive. Also when they use some of the larger animals, they’ve had the crocodiles’ jaws [taped] shut, obviously to prevent celebrities from being harmed too badly.

‘It’s unnatural and they really need to leave animals in peace.’

The series has used a huge number of bugs and critters in celebrity challenges over the years, with 160,000 used in just one task in 2018and 1.5million flies in 2004.

‘It’s so disappointing, and awful really, especially when you consider how many young people watch the show,’ Jennifer continues. ‘When you treat animals in such a way, it sends a harmful message to the younger viewers who are so influenced by what they see on TV.

‘It’s that disregard for animal welfare that keeps Peta and RSPCA workers inundated with cruelty to animal reports all year round. There’s absolutely no excuse for documenting cruelty to animals in this way.’

Peta has campaigned against the use of animals in tasks and currently has a petition in place to encourage bosses to get rid of the ‘disgusting stunts’ and replace them with more updated challenges. More than 40,000 have reportedly signed so far, but ITV has yet to publicly issue a response.

Speaking on why she believes they have stayed quiet, Jennifer says: ‘I think, unfortunately, because they are getting away with doing these challenges, they’re saying that they’re meeting all the animal welfare guidelines. But I think the point that we’re trying to get across is that just because something is legal, doesn’t make it right. 

‘They don’t need to bully animals for TV viewing. Unfortunately because what they do is often so horrifying, they are getting the viewing figures. That’s why Peta is urging everyone to boycott the show this year and sign our petition to ITV, to try to get them to remove these challenges.’

So what would Peta suggest going forward?

‘Anything that does not involve harming living beings would be a great step forward,’ Jennifer adds. ‘That’s the message we would want them to take home. They’re at a castle in Wales, it makes absolutely no sense for animals to be involved.

‘We would encourage everyone to speak out against this on social media, it’s so important to be a voice for the animals so that ITV knows just how upset people are.

‘It’s long overdue for bosses to make these steps, and it probably will take the ratings falling for them to do something about it, which is why turning off the TV when it comes on this year is just so incredibly important.’

Olympic javelin thrower Fatima Whitbread was a campmate on the 11th series of I’m A Celebrity, in 2011. She left the Australian jungle in third place, behind Towie’s Mark Wright and McFly’s Dougie Poynter, who came out victorious.

One unforgettable moment from that year’s intake was when a cockroach got stuck up inside Fatima’s nose during the Fill Your Face trial. A helmet had been placed over Fatima’s head and it was then filled up with live cockroaches. Seconds later, our worst nightmare ensued.

‘Because my chin was already on the lower part of the helmet, it left no room for the cockroaches and went straight up my nose and that was that,’ Fatima recalls. ‘For a whole minute, I was trying to snort him down. I was trying to get him out by closing my airhole with my finger but the problem was he had gone so far up he was on the ledge between the back of the nasal tract.

‘He was holding on for dear life with his feet. It felt like someone had shaken a bottle of fizzy drink and it was exploding up there in my head.’

The ordeal was massively edited down for television, with Fatima telling us the whole thing painstakingly went on for an entire 40 minutes.

‘Three different syringes of solutions to try and get it to come down were used, but he was very determined,’ she says. ‘He must have been quite comfortable up there. He wasn’t having it.

‘I said to the doctor, “where is this likely to come out?” He said, “it will either come out of the ears, the mouth, the nose or the eyes.” It was horrible.’

But was Fatima put off from doing any further trials involving animals? ‘No. I really wasn’t. I was fine with it,’ she insists. ‘Anyone who goes in there knows what they’re letting themselves in for.

‘Part of the interest both for the viewer and for the participant, is working with the unknown and the extreme conditions that there are.

‘They do try to clear out the camp, but you’ll always get something that comes walking in. At the end of the day, it’s their territory. We’re invading their space, as it were.’ 

In fact, Fatima believes that the use of animals on I’m A Celebrity is an integral part of the show.

‘Viewers switch on and they want to see people eat the bugs, it’s part of the programme,’ she says. ‘It’s a fundamental part of the programme. At the end of the day, as it currently stands, that’s why people watch it. If it’s changed, they might decide it’s no longer interesting.

‘The jungle is about living against critters and the extremities of what those conditions bring. I would say the whole experience would be the jungle and that’s part of it; using those snakes, spiders, all those things. That is part of it.’

That being said, Fatima understands why people may get offended by the show using animals.

‘I don’t like to hurt or harm any creature,’ she notes. ‘I’m an animal lover. I’ve got a small dog named Bertie, and I don’t like harming a fly or an ant or anything.’

But she asserts that the creatures used on the programme are well looked after. ‘They are treated with care and consideration,’ she insists. ‘I know the people to be just as caring to the critters.’ 

What could I’m A Celebrity look like without animals?

Shayna Waldman, development and production executive at the production company The ATS Team, has worked on a number of challenged-based shows, such as Ninja Warrior and The Floor Is Lava, and is no stranger to inventing crazy fun trials.

She notes that I’m A Celebrity’s animal-centred trials have either a scare or gross element to them, which can easily be revamped to create the same scare tactic or fear factor without using animals.

‘One show that does that really well is Taskmaster,’ she tells us. ‘They make up some great food challenges. For example, there was one with Romesh Ranganathan having to finish a watermelon in a certain amount of time and he was still throwing up, so you’re still disgusted by it.

‘For the scare element, they did another one where contestants had to guess the content of the pie. It was a hot toothpaste pie. There is an element of fear in that because you don’t know what you’re about to eat. Other shows have played around with this idea as well and there are always different ways to go about it.’

Coming up with animal-free trials wouldn’t even take that long to do. ’It’s not a long timescale,’ Shayna stresses. ‘Producers can sit in a room for an hour and come up with a bunch of new challenges.

‘It’s actually harder to do all of these contests and challenges with animals and bugs, depending on where you are in the world because there are so many laws against animal rights. You have to do the research to figure out what qualifies and what doesn’t qualify.

‘In Australia, there aren’t any rules on some of the insects that they use so that means it’s fair game, but you have to have special people come in that oversee these trials. They have to set it up, they have to count the bugs.’

A lot of research goes into the animal-based trials, Shayna tells us: ‘They have to talk to lawyers to make sure they aren’t reducing any liabilities and they have to get insurance. There’s also research to figure out what animals aren’t protected species.

‘Those challenges take a lot longer than regular challenges like me going to a store and buying some dog food and getting you to make ravioli with it. I don’t have to research anything for that. You wouldn’t have to put out a special policy [for food challenges without bugs]. Insurance companies wouldn’t have to ask that as it’s not a very high risk.

‘The things you have to have long conversations with legal and insurance is stuff with children, with animals, with heights, and underwater.’

‘You can get really, really creative with the tasks and it’s so much easier on producers and more fun for them,’ Shayna continues. ‘It’s a whole other element to keep making something fresh each year.

‘I think the only thing they really change on I’m A Celebrity is the celebrities. Other than that, it’s pretty expected. It’s surprising how they’ve managed to keep it on for as long as they have without keeping it fresh.’

So, who would hypothetically make the call to end the use of live animals in trials on I’m A Celebrity?

‘It has to come from the top,’ Shayna tells us. ‘Any time there is an issue, like anti-bullying, these things at the end of the day lie with whoever has the money and makes the decisions.

‘The producers can put pressure on to make these changes but ultimately it has to be a decision from ITV. Producers are service providers at the end of the day. We sell something but we do what the network wants.’

While Fatima reckons that the use of animals is an integral part of I’m A Celebrity and the show would not be the same without the live creature element, Shayna argues that the format is stale and expected.

‘I know you’re going to put me in with an animal in front of me. I don’t know exactly what it is; if it’s a cow testicle or a pig nose, but I know what we’re going to do here,’ she says. ‘If there was more creativity involved, I wouldn’t know what to expect, the contestants wouldn’t know what to expect, and that makes it more exciting for everybody. I won’t know what I’m going to get that evening when I tune into the show. It’s a win-win for everyone.’

Shayna adds: ‘You’re going to get more viewers, you’re going to get more surprises, you’re going to get more top moments. You’re going to get a whole other genre of people and viewers if you start mixing it up.’

This year’s I’m A Celebrity ratings dropped to their lowest since 2014, with the episode that aired on December 3 dipping to below five million viewers for the first time in seven years. Surely now would be the best time to think about shaking things up?

‘You’re down on viewers and you’ve got these cruelty issues,’ Shayna points out. ‘It feels like a good time to have fun with it, to bring life back into it, to be more creative.

‘Also, read the room a little bit. Our culture is starting to move towards a climate change perspective, as well.’

ITV has been under a microscope throughout the pandemic with its decision to shift I’m A Celebrity to the UK from Australia due to restrictions raising eyebrows. The move hasn’t been plain sailing, with those involved confronted with a different set of issues than they had Down Under.

This series, severe winter storms in the UK forced bosses to pull the show for three days and campmates were evacuated for the first time in the programme’s history. Viewership has also been significantly down, with Peta’s petition calling for the show to be scrapped and viewers to boycott it gaining traction. 

Hopefully, this will prove to be a wake-up call that things do need to change – and that loyal viewers might not want to settle down to spend their evenings watching animals needlessly hurt or put in harmful situations just for the sake of entertainment.

One of the most popular trials is the Celebrity Cyclone – where stars battle it out against a giant slip-and-slide in a bid to win precious stars and meals for their camp – with not a single animal used. That’s what viewers want to see more of, not someone locked in a vault with snakes or being challenged to stick a hand into a box of creepy crawlies. 

I’m A Celebrity has become a crown jewel in ITV’s schedule over the last 19 years it has been on our screens, but in that time, very little in the format has been adapted. Celebs go in, animals are harmed, celebs come out. Surely now it’s time for a bigger change to take place before the series secures its place on the wrong side of history.

I’m A Celebrity concludes tonight at 9pm on ITV.

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