Animal Planet’s “My Extreme Animal Phobia” gets to the root of fear

by Karl J. Paloucek

I remember, many years ago, a colleague of mine admitted to being terrified of birds. It didn’t matter if they were seagulls up in the air, pigeons on the ground or even little parakeets in cages — any suggestion of flapping wings or pecking beaks had the power to set her on edge. Naturally, she never should have said such a thing to me, since I ended up periodically taunting her with parrot puppets and anything else that smacked of fine-feathered unfriendliness. (Always in fun — trust me, she was annoyed, but amused.) But I have to wonder if she might not have been a candidate for Animal Planet’s new series, My Extreme Animal Phobia, premiering Friday, Oct. 28 at 10pm ET/PT.

My Extreme Animal Phobia examines what happens to people when a fear of animals gets the better of them and begins to significantly impact their lives. They may know that their fears are irrational, and may not be based in anything other than simply the unknown, but the effects of that fear can be far-reaching: Some people won’t go out of their houses for years. Some just live with a feeling of profound shame.

But rather than just exploit people’s fears for entertainment — sort of like I did with my former employer — My Extreme Animal Phobia aims to guide people out of the paralysis of fear and into at least a serene coexistence with the animals around them. With psychologist Dr. Robin Zasio, subjects in the series undergo a five-day regimen of controlled — but intense — emotional exposure therapy, facing down their fears, getting hold of them and becoming their master.

In the first episode of My Extreme Animal Phobia, Dr. Zasio encounters an otherwise-fearless man whose terror of bats is so encompassing that the mere thought of flapping, leathery wings is enough to render him powerless. A second story features a woman whose fear of cockroaches prevents her from returning to visit her family in Puerto Rico, and in a third, a seminary student aspiring to do missionary work must overcome her fear of rats and mice.

These are admittedly more dire symptoms of the phobia than my colleague ever exhibited, but the treatment endured by those in My Extreme Animal Phobia sounds like it could be very intense indeed, and something I’m not sure every animal-phobic person would be willing to endure. But it’s a nobler gesture than taunting the afflicted with puppets, I’m sure.