Putting the Wild in Wildlife

There is, perhaps, only one way to adequately lay to rest a man known mostly for swimming with sharks and jumping from the tops of very high mountains.

And so, this Sunday, a team of high-flying paragliders will spread the ashes of adventurer and filmmaker Jimmy Hall — who once told CNN, "I'd rather blow up than rust" — over the blue waters of Hale'iwa, Hawaii.

Hall, 41, who had hosted some of Discovery Channel's Shark Week programs, died last week while BASE jumping — think skydiving without the plane — from a mountain on Baffin Island, a remote corner of the Canadian Arctic. He was filming a documentary there at the time.

"They all jumped at the same time and it's assumed that Jimmy got blown into the side of the mountain," a family spokesman told the media.

Viewers still enjoy the beauty and grandeur of Mother Nature. Some 5.1 million people tuned in to Discovery Channel's high-definition special, "Planet Earth," the highest ratings ever for a natural history program. But with the proliferation of cable channels, more and more stations feature personality-driven nature shows.

From Discovery and National Geographic to MTV, these shows feature the drama of men and women in the wild. Whether it is Discovery's reality show about climbers on Mt. Everest, "Everest: Beyond the Limit," or MTV's "Jackass" spin-off about wildlife, "WildBoyz," these programs play up the risk involved in making them.

So, just how did we get from the khaki-clad gentleman adventurers of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" to MTV 2's WildBoyz, in which former "Jackass" cast member Steve-O pierced his cheek with a fish hook, loaded his underwear with chum and went swimming with sharks in the Gulf of Mexico?

For the MTV nature show, the "boyz," Steve-O (born Steven Glover) and Chris Pontius also dressed in banana suits in an effort to get chased by a group of endangered mountain gorillas, and, wearing nothing but thongs, covered themselves with poisonous lizards.

A Son of the Circus

In recent years, the person most associated with blending personal hijinks and the natural world was Steve Irwin, best known for his Discovery Channel series "The Crocodile Hunter."

Whatever line had traditionally been drawn between the wildlife television host and the wildlife itself, Irwin pushed.

And the line has been further pushed ever since.

Irwin grew up working at Australia Zoo where he handled some of that country's most dangerous wildlife. His high energy and willingness to manipulate deadly and often poisonous snakes and other reptiles, earned him an international reputation and worldwide following.

Despite his popularity, he was widely criticized for dangling his then one-month-old son near a 13-foot crocodile he was feeding at the zoo in 2004.

"He was a showman — you have to be a showman to be in this business," said Jeff Corwin, host of Animal Planet's "The Jeff Corwin Experience" and "Corwin's Quest."

"You have to be engaging, you have to be charismatic. Whether you liked [Irwin] or not, you have to admire his way of connecting with people. That was his big top."

While Irwin may have objected to his antics being compared to a circus, it was that tradition in which he was working, said Bob Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.

"It's nothing new. It is very similar to the way people used to watch lion tamers in the era of circuses. It's exciting to see animals you couldn't see at home. We no longer get to see beasts in nature. But there is also this real human drama," he said. "We have an appetite for the excitement of the drama of man versus beast."

The Discovery Channel would rather you thought of them as old fashioned purveyors of educational material, rather than a cable version of the circus. Spokespeople from the company made an effort to say that when Hall died, he was not working on a Discovery documentary and had only a bit part in their annual Shark Week series.

They were also keen to play up the success of "Planet Earth," the popular and host-less documentary series that surveyed much of the planet's wildlife in vivid high-definition.

"People are just trying to make the best stories they can. … Hosts play an important part in telling stories, but I think it's false that they are trying to outdo each other or becoming more competitive," said Elizabeth Hillman, senior vice president of communications at Discovery. "Steve Irwin was a conservationist through and through and lived among animals and always had. I can't speak to competitiveness."

Snakes on a Tree

But Corwin, who began working in television at about the same time as Irwin, and whose early shows reflect a similar style of "pulling snakes out of trees," said that the recent trend towards gonzo wildlife programs has led him to carefully consider how and when he now handles animals.

"I have seen shows that really upset me. … Some of these guys go out and literally put fish bait in their underwear and try to get bit by sharks or attacked by bears. It's unethical and may qualify as cruel.

"My days of pulling snakes out of trees just for the sake of doing it are pretty much over. I want to have a legitimate reason for putting my hands on wildlife. There has to be a sense of authenticity and legitimacy. Stuff I did four or five years ago — physically handling dozens of venomous snakes — are behind me," Corwin said.

Corwin, who has a masters in wildlife preservation, said that his shows now typically feature real scientists working in the field. When he handles animals, it is often in concert with their research, as in collecting venom to make anti-venom in Mexico, or tagging polar bears in the Arctic.

He's currently working on a series with CNN's Anderson Cooper about global warming.

Last month, while filming with Cooper at an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia, an Elephant grabbed Corwin by the arm and tried to throw him to the ground. Corwin said his arm still hurts, but much like when he learned of Irwin's death, it hasn't changed the way he does things.

Corwin is still drawn back into the field because, as he said, "I love adventure."

And, beyond the desire to tell stories, it's the risk that draws back. "It's like I live this double life. I have dinner with the neighbors and take my kids to school, and then I'm like a spy, twisting on my silencer and jumping onto helicopters. I love adventure. I love the field. I love adventure."

Luckily for Corwin, Americans also love adventure, said Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University, former president of the American Psychological Association, and an expert in thrill seekers.

"These personalities are motivated by things like the intensity of an experience — they want to feel like they've lived life. They seek variety, novelty, change, and they're easily bored," said Farley.

That certainly sums up the experience of Timothy Treadwell, better known as the Grizzly Man. Treadwell spent thirteen summers in Alaska, living with grizzly bears and meticulously filming his experience. He believed he had gained the trust of the bears but was killed and eaten along with his girlfriend in 2003. In 2005, Werner Herzog directed the film "Grizzly Man," which used Treadwell's own footage and questions weather Treadwell had a death wish.

According to Farley, Americans are descended from people who were adventurous enough to leave their homes and come here. The country was founded by rebellious revolutionaries, and we're drawn to adventurers even if we don't have the fortitude to brave the elements ourselves.

"Nowadays, we've structured the world so you can avoid taking risks," said Farley. "In America, we understand that to change the world, we have to enter the world of risk. You can't just sit around and do nothing and expect things to change. … Many of us have families and jobs and are unwilling to take risk ourselves, so we live vicariously through thrill seekers."