Some of the most popular types of reality programmes contain stories about humans and companion animals. There are observational formats such as Vets in Practice (BBC, 1994-), infotainment such as Animal Hospital (BBC, 1994-2004), and advice formats such as The Pet Psychic (Animal Planet, 2002-) or The Dog Listener (Channel 5, 2001-2002). There is even a cable TV channel targeted directly at pets; Miow TV includes visuals that appeal to cats, along with information for cat owners. Given the variety of reality formats for pets on television, the content is surprisingly similar: most formats are concerned with pets in crisis. In this chapter, I want to explore popular factual television concerned with the ill health, ill treatment, recovery, and, in extreme cases, death of companion animals. This chapter applies the concept of an ethics of care, as discussed in the previous chapter, to a case study of the content and reception of animal-based reality programmes. Programmes such as Animal Hospital are popular with family viewers, and regular viewers of these programmes tend to be mothers and children. When audiences talk about programmes such as Animal Hospital they frame their responses in relation to compassion and responsibility towards pets in the home, and socially acceptable treatment of pets. The stories of pets in crisis highlight the morally charged arena of human-animal relations, and mark the transformation of the cultural meaning of pets in the late twentieth century from 'lifestyle accessories' to valued 'members of the family'. In addition, such stories of pets in crisis raise ethical issues concerning the politics of suffering, and the politics of viewing suffering on television.
The history of human-animal relations is a history of changing social attitudes and behaviour towards the co-existence of humans and animals within the natural world. Adrian Franklin, in his book Animals and Modern Culture, summarises the main theoretical approach to human-animal relations as follows: