Animal Planet’s The Zoo is expanding. Following the format of The Zoo, with the Bronx Zoo animals and its keepers, production relocated to the sunny haven of San Diego. The new spinoff series features the world-famous San Diego Zoo and Safari Park.
Premiering this Saturday with a two-hour premiere, The Zoo: San Diego Zoo introduces viewers to exotic and endangered animals, along with a behind-the-scenes look at the keepers and doctors who take care of them.
San Diego has not one, but two world-class facilities to encounter wildlife. One is a traditional city zoo where San Diego has long been the standard for other zoos. The second is Safari Park, where many animals have an enormous amount of roaming space and home-grown plants to eat.
“We have members that have been lifelong members, a community in San Diego,” said Rick Schwartz, San Diego Zoo Global ambassador. “What you’re seeing on TV, you don’t get to see unless you’re a keeper or vet staff or someone who works here.”
“This is an intimate look, for even our local community who have always supported us, to see behind-the-scenes. To be a part of what is going on versus just coming through and enjoying the facilities we have.”
The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park have long courted national exposure for television specials and events. However, they have never invited camera crews for several months, filming around the clock.
Once green-lit, the daunting task of where to begin started. The production asked supervisors and curators of each section of the zoos for stories in their areas.
“They told us, well, this animal is pregnant, she’ll be giving birth on this date, or this animal has a new kid being introducing in the area,” Schwartz said. “We collected a lot of stories and ran them by the producers who hand-picked what they wanted to feature.”
Shooting began in late January and fingers were crossed that something would happen once the cameras rolled.
“Maybe the animal we were hoping to give birth two weeks away, gives birth early. There was an animal under conditions that weren’t ideal and the mother didn’t take to him, so the story changed from a cute birth to now an animal has medical needs,” Schwartz shared. “We had our best plans laid out. Animals are animals, so we had to be agile in changing plans quickly if we needed to.”
At a special screening of one of the episodes at the San Diego Zoo, guests watched the stories of baby Mang mountain vipers, the endangered California condor, and the plight of a baby klipspringer, an African antelope.
These are just three of the 55 ongoing and overlapping stories produced for the initial ten episodes.
Many will not make it into Season 1, but the production can’t hoard this kind of rare access. Animal Planet plans to release other stories through their website, mobile app, and on their YouTube channel. This format gives viewers the follow-mentary experience, for even those without direct access to the network.
While the animals remain the adorable and fascinating stars of each episode, what the series is wise to showcase is the work by the keepers and veterinary specialists. Benjamin Nevitt, the associate veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo, is excited to take the public where it’s never been, showing their work in conservation and rehabilitation.
“It speaks our voice really well, and some of the really cool parts of my job are now going to be told to the world at large,” Nevitt said. “Friends near and far have heard about it second hand through stories that I’ve told, but man, this is going to open it up to a big population that is going to be able to appreciate what we do.”
“He was born on the coldest, wettest night in San Diego and arrived at the hospital with us without a heartbeat, did CPR and warmed him up,” Nevitt said of the baby klipspringer. “Every once in a while we get that miracle case that our whole team puts the whole group effort, and to turn that case around is really cool.”
For folks wondering how to respond to their children when they say they want to work with animals when they grow up, this is the series for you. It puts the spotlight on the wide range of tasks keepers, nutritionists and veterinarians accomplish that go unheralded or are unknown to the public, but are equally important in completing the mission of the San Diego Zoo Global, which is to end extinction.
The Zoo shows where a veterinary degree could ultimately land you. It displays the care and devotion one must have in this line of work. At times, it will also reveal the marvels of modern science and medicine — even if the subjects have different anatomy.
“There is a lot of stuff that happens in a zoo, that doesn’t get seen,” said Brandon Scott, the supervisor of herpetology and ichthyology on The Zoo. “Those baby Mang pit-vipers we featured — no one would know that was going on (if we didn’t get to see it on The Zoo). To know that we were able to help them out, in that time period and actually capture that, is remarkable. After seeing it, I got excited and said, ‘Yeahhh!’”
“Everything is nice and neat and perfect on the outside, but there’s a lot of things that we’re working on as a team, not just my team either, it’s a global team of veterinary staff and nutrition. It captures our true passion, five days a week, and sometimes more. You know with that baby Klipspringer, those keepers are coming in on their day off just to check in on how he’s doing.”
Scott’s passion has always been reptiles. He said he wanted other herpetologists to be on the hunt in future episodes for stories on Galapagos turtles, Fiji iguanas, and the cyclura, a Caribbean iguana.
“We like to get in there and show our reptiles off,” Scott beamed. “They’re beautiful and often misunderstood.”
That’s a little understandable when the animals cannot talk back to us. That’s the magic of The Zoo, because no matter the species, the whisperers who devote their lives to caring for them help bridge that language barrier.
It doesn’t matter if there are feathers, scales, or skin. It doesn’t matter if we are hatched or birthed, walk on two legs, four or more–we can all connect to the love and care, embedded within these stories.
Watch the two-hour premiere of The Zoo: San Diego Zoo on Animal Planet, Saturday, August 10 at 8 pm.