The location of a special advanced screening for cable network Animal Planet’s newest series was literally an animal house.
The new series, ‘The Zoo,’ was filmed at the Bronx Zoo over the course of several months last year in conjunction with the zoo and its staff, and gives a behind the scenes view of the daily work done to care for the park’s thousands of animal residents.
It debuted Saturday, February 18 at 10 p.m.
Prior to the Thursday, February 16 evening screening, the indoor Madagascar exhibit was open to members of the press to interview representatives from Animal Planet and the zoo itself.
They were also treated to a feeding of a pair of large Nile crocodiles, which make an appearance in the new program along with their extremely cautious handlers.
As ring-tailed lemurs scurried about their own arid exhibit, Bronx Zoo general curator Pat Thomas said the idea for the show was to give the public a better idea of what zoos actually do.
Zoos do not just exist for entertainment, he said, but are mainly focused on conservation efforts and research.
In the past year, 230 zoos under the umbrella of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums contributed $186 million to conservation efforts outside their parks in the wild, he added.
“We felt there are a lot of misconceptions about zoos, and some questions about whether there need to be zoos and aquariums in the 21st century,” Thomas said. “We thought the best way to convey that was to partner with Animal Planet and open up our doors and let them film whatever they want.”
Multiple film crews followed zoo staff on and off for eight months, and quickly learned how to blend in around the animals.
For instance, crews sometimes used smaller GoPro cameras instead of larger, more intrusive cameras.
There are 500 employees at the zoo who contribute in some way to animal care, and about 100 or so who care for the animals directly.
Being featured on a national television network was a new experience for staffers, but Thomas said one thing that will come through loud and clear in the show is the passion that zoo employees have for their work.
“I think in general, the people who work with animals are drawn to animals and tend to be more introverted, myself included,” he said “But then there are people who love being in front of the camera.”
Thomas said the showrunners did not intentionally spotlight any particular staff members, but instead chose to film whichever employees were caring for the animals being featured in a given episode.
“It was the machinists that would be building a shoot for a giraffe and the keepers that work with the giraffe. In the first episode, someone counted 40 people appearing, and that’s great because it gives us a chance to showcase the people who by and large fly under the radar.”
The Animal Planet network’s general manager, Patrice Andrews, said the show was the result of what she called an incredible and amazing partnership that her crews established with the zoo employees.
“This was like an all-access backstage pass for the zoo,” Andrews said. “We pulled back every curtain that we could,” she said. “The beauty here is that there are 6,000 animals, and we had every door opened. It was just a matter of where we were and what kind of story we wanted to cover.”
That exclusive access led to several memorable behind-the-scenes moments that viewers will see, including the treatment of a flamingo with a broken leg.
“They were able to rig something together with a hinge that allowed the leg to keep moving,” Andrews said. “Just seeing the ingenuity that goes into caring for them, because there are no kits to save a flamingo’s leg.”
Another memorable scene Andrews said she was proud of chronicles the zoo staff treating a gorilla for glaucoma.
“They were able to figure out one of the gorillas had glaucoma and performed surgery,” she said. “Just the fact they were able to discern that during day-to-day interactions with that gorilla was just amazing to me.”
Following the crocodile feeding, the screening was held in a nearby gathering hall. The possibility of future seasons now rests in the hands of viewers, but Andrews said she would love to see it happen.
“If we could run this 100 episodes, we’d be very happy,” she said.