‘Raised Wild,’ mostly monkey business
Animal Planet series cooks up a jungle mystery where none exists
November 15, 2012
We all love those documentaries in which attractive, intense archaeologists, anthropologists or historians — who usually have a British accent — head off into a remote area to investigate a mystery. They hack through the bush, interview shy villagers and travel on rickety but picturesque conveyances, all the while giving us breathless updates on their progress. If they could have avoided all that trouble by simply doing a Google search, well, that's besides the point, right?
In the premiere episode of Animal Planet's "Raised Wild," a new documentary series that will investigate stories of children who were raised by animals, the British anthropologist Mary-Ann Ochota travels to rural Africa to search for "the monkey boy of Uganda" and spends most of the hour colorfully chasing leads that she could have circumvented by simply typing into her browser the phrase "the monkey boy of Uganda," which would tell her the boy's identity and where he could be located.
The actual facts about the boy's life are interesting and could have been told much better without all the running about. Since the producers are so obviously straining to improve the story, we tend to doubt everything we hear and see. The show is wasting its own time as well as ours.
In the premiere episode, which airs this Friday, Nov. 16, at 9 p.m., Ochota presents the story of the monkey boy as if it were a shadowy modern legend and not something that has been reported on in newspapers and in a BBC documentary. She first heads to an area of Uganda where the stories of the boy emerged.
Somehow having learned the name of the woman who found the boy in the jungle, Ochota, sitting in a candlelit room, whispers to the camera the devastating news that the woman moved away several years ago.
Fortunately, the next day Ochota tells us that the woman's husband, who helped her return the boy to his native village, is still alive. Even trusting viewers will suspect that she knew this before she blew those candles out.
One lead follows another as Ochota locates the orphanage that first took the boy in, and then a teacher who helped him recover some language, and finally a man she refers to his as his current guardian. Traveling from place to place, she rides on the back of a man's motorcycle and in a run-down riverboat.
As mentioned above, all this travel and fuss is pointless.
Along the way, we gradually learn the story of the boy, whose name is John Ssebunya. According to the witnesses whom Ochota interviews, he was found in 1992 in an area populated by vervet monkeys; his body was covered in a light coating of fur; and he moved and vocalized like a monkey.
Apparently around 7 years old, he had fled his abusive father three years before. His mother, according to neighbors, had died from a snakebite.
Reenactments present all this as fact, although many important details in this version differ from previous published versions, most of which say that John spent well under a year in the bush.
The crucial question is whether the monkeys actually accepted John as one of their own and helped him survive or simply allowed him to forage for food in their territory. Although John's own account would usually be enough to settle it, he seems to have developmental difficulties that make his memory of events suspect.
At least John has no obvious motivation to embellish his story. "Raised Wild" does — namely, ratings. But by jazzing up this story, the show loses both our trust and our interest.
Tags: Although John, animal planet, bbc, documentary, John Ssebunya, Mary Ann Ochota, own, premiere, premiere episode, raised wild, raised wild animal planet, raised wild review, raised wild tv review, tv reviews, Uganda, viewers
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