Lions, tigers, bears – ACTION!
The popular residents of the Bronx Zoo are being featured in a groundbreaking new reality show that takes viewers behind the exhibits and explores the deep relationships between the animals and the people who care for them.
“The Zoo,” premieres Feb. 18 at 10 p.m. on Animal Planet offering never-before-seen footage taken at the sprawling 265-acre complex as crews spent more than 8 months embedded with staffers last year.
And this is more than a series about cute animals — although there will be plenty of them to enjoy. Officials at the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the zoo, want to showcase work being done in the city and around the world to protect and save animal species.
“We wanted to do the show because I don’t think the average person — even people who go to zoos and aquariums — know what happens on a day-to-day basis,” said Jim Breheny, executive vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society Zoos and Aquarium and director of the Bronx Zoo.
“People question whether zoos are still relevant,” Breheny said. “It’s hard to get into that discussion because you can’t respond to that in a tweet or a headline or even a 350-word op-ed. We wanted to give people a snapshot of what goes on here every day.”
More than 500 people are tasked with caring for about 6,000 animals at the zoo, which first opened in 1899.
Like other reality shows, “The Zoo” will have its share of laughter, tears and drama, promised Lisa Lucas, executive producer of “The Zoo.”
“Every episode had something I didn’t expect,” Lucas said. “There was a very poignant scene with the tiger cubs, who were hand reared by staff after being rejected by their mother. They had been bottled fed day and night and it was time to let them go and be integrated into this lush enclosure. It was kind of like sending kids to kindergarten.”
Another storyline features Dinky, the smallest member of the flamingo flock, who injured her leg. Experts struggled to find a way to brace the fragile limb.
“There was a lot of Macgyvering going on,” laughed Lucas. “It was fascinating. They had to use a furniture hinge to make it flexible so she could bend.”
A full length mirror also eased the loneliness of the little flamingo while she healed.
“She likes seeing other flamingos,” Lucas said.
Pat Thomas, general curator of the Bronx Zoo who managed production of the show, said he thinks viewers will be surprised to see the complex dynamic between staffers and the animals.
“People think of zoos as keepers and (animals as) kept but this is going to show there is give and take on both sides,” Thomas said. “The relationships go much deeper than that.”
Cameras also captured the WCS’s efforts to breed maleos, a rare bird from an island off Indonesia that lay their eggs in deep sand. Keepers had to provide the proper sand and then frantically dig for the egg so it could be placed in an incubator.
Filming natural animal antics proved a challenge as well since crews could not step inside enclosures. Zoo staff also worked hard to make sure the animals would not be disturbed by the presence of cameras.
“These are not trained animals, they are not accustomed to interacting with people,” Lucas said. “Sometimes we had to hide cameras in fake tree stumps and mount them around the enclosures.”
But curious gorillas managed to find the cameras hidden behind plastic glass in their exhibits, smearing them and sometimes ruining the footage.
“Animals are creatures of habit,” Breheny said. “Sometimes any change to their routine turns them off. You have to introduce changes to the environment very slowly. We worked creatively with the team to hide GoPros.”
Breheny and Thomas said any concerns they may have had about the project disappeared when they viewed the early footage.
“The thing I am most proud of is that it really shows the diversity and the depth and the level of expertise of our staff,” Breheny said. “It also allows us to put the spotlight on conservation challenges and hopefully get more people involved.”
Lucas said “The Zoo” is a throwback to family-friendly shows of the past.
“There really is something for everyone,” she said. “If you like the medical side of it, if you are curious about the process of feeding 6,000 animals … it has that. It is going to be happy at times and sad at times. It will be exciting and dangerous. The whole family can sit together and watch it and enjoy.”
The show will air through April.