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June 20, 2008

I’ve made a point of not watching TV “reality” shows, but a recent episode of 30 Days was an exception. As associate editor/Web editor Lisa Barley noted in her June 16 blog post, 30 Days varies from most reality series in that it isn’t about humiliating people, but about what it’s like to live a lifestyle different from your own.

As Lisa also noted, I met the vegan Karpel family featured in the episode while on a VT-sponsored Taste of Health cruise last spring. I was traveling alone and got the family to “adopt” me. The Karpels are just the kind of family you’d belong to if you could: They’re warm, generous, loving—and especially for those of us who are veg, they’re not constantly asking if you’re getting enough protein.

I was relieved to learn, in a conversation with Madeleine (“Mom”) Karpel about the show, that their scenes weren’t staged or manipulated, as happens in most “unscripted” series. From personal experience I can attest to the Karpels’ knack for putting you at ease when you’re with them. Even given the initial culture shock set up by 30 Days, I wasn’t all that surprised to see George Snedeker, the hunter staying with the family, so relaxed in their company. “It makes me smile when I think about the experience,” Madeleine said. “We made a friend.” They continue to talk on the phone, Madeleine told me, and spoke together after watching the episode on opposite coasts: the Karpels in California and Snedeker in North Carolina.

I would’ve liked to have seen more of the Karpel family in the episode, but they stayed mostly in the background. That was just fine with Madeleine. She said that when her daughter Melissa, PETA’s campaign strategist, first talked to her about the family participating in the series, she was reluctant: “I thought, it’s so not me, I wouldn’t feel comfortable. But all Melissa had to say was, ‘Mom, it’s about the animals.’”

In fact, the airtime devoted to animals was what gave the show its emotional wallop. Snedeker’s seeing firsthand the abandoning of pets at shelters and the casual cruelty toward animals on a factory farm was a revelation. “It’s not possible to witness what I witnessed and not be affected,” he said on camera. “I do believe animals have rights. They don’t deserve to suffer or be abused.” As Melissa said to me regarding what felt unique about the show, it’s not often that TV viewers get to see inside the livestock industry. Footage of Snedeker taking part in the rescue of a calf left to die at dairy farm and then helping restore the calf to health at Animal Acres, a farm animal sanctuary, was the heart and soul of the show.

It’s true that Snedeker still hunts deer. And he hasn’t gone veg, despite doctor visits during the 30 days indicating his cholesterol levels dropped while eating vegan meals with the Karpels—sequences that ended up on the cutting room floor. But as the episode progressed, Snedeker’s awkwardness at PETA actions evolved into genuine conviction. “I am a bit of an animal activist,” he said in the show’s final segment.

I actually took Snedeker’s side once early on in the episode. Animal Acres’ director Lorri Bauston expressed surprise that if he had to choose, Snedeker would save a human who was a stranger to him over one of his pet dogs. I’ve got to agree with Snedeker on this one. After all, as the episode showed, a stranger can, in a matter of days, become a friend.

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