The Bronx Zoo—home to these adorable gorillas and these cute baby lemurs, and these sweet little otters, and this AMAZING porcupine, and this majestic giraffe family, and these TINY BEAUTIFUL FAIRY PENGUINS—is the subject of a new Animal Planet reality show. The Zoo, which premieres on Saturday, promises to be "an inspiring and eye-opening first ever look at the diverse animals residing at the Bronx Zoo and the passionate caretakers working at the zoo," according to Animal Planet, as well as a look at the Wildlife Conservation Society's preservation efforts. Mostly, though, it's a good excuse to SQUEEEEEEEEEE for a solid hour.
At a press event last night, zoo curator and WCS Vice President Pat Thomas told Gothamist he hopes the series, which was filmed over the course of eight months, will show viewers the benefit of zoos and aquariums both for the animals and human visitors, and help mitigate criticism that keeping animals in zoos is a form of cruelty. Recently, the Bronx Zoo was alleged to be one of the worst for elephants thanks to its cold winters and cramped cages, among other things. Zoo director Jim Breheny defended the elephant exhibit in an op-ed for the Daily News; the zoo and WCS say they work hard to protect, care for, learn about, and conserve their animals, both inside the zoo and in the wild, and they hope this is reflected in the series.
"In having internal discussions, we felt that there's a lot of misconceptions about zoos and, in some cases, questions about whether zoos and aquariums are actually relevant, and is there a need for them in this day and age," Thomas said. He noted that while zoo attendance and membership hasn't really dropped, he worried that visitors aren't aware of WCS's conservation efforts around the world. "One of the things that we really wanted to get across is, while we take great pains in providing really high quality care for the animals that are here, our bigger purpose is the conservation of species in nature," he said, pointing out that the 230 zoos within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums contribute $186 million in field conservation per year. "I think most people don't have a good sense of that," he said.
We also saw keepers feed crocodiles:
The premiere episode, which screened for press and zoo staff last night, doesn't really touch on WCS's global conservation efforts. But it does show the hard work staffers do to ensure the animals at the zoo are comfortable and cared for. In the first episode, one ornithologist on staff does her darndest to get two rare maleo birds to mate, while a staff veterinarian treats a gorilla with glaucoma.
And in a particularly heartwarming plotline, Kathleen LaMattina, who acclimates baby animals to humans before they're introduced to the public, helps nurture two Malayan tiger cubs before they're installed in the zoo's Tiger Mountain exhibit. LaMattina, who is also married to Breheny, treats the baby tigers like her children, and is obviously emotional when she has to say goodbye to them.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding zoos—on the one hand, the conservation efforts are admirable, but reports of lonely, miserable, cramped animals are deeply troubling. Still, it was evident from last night's screening that the folks who work at the zoo really do care about their charges, and research has also shown that interacting with animals teaches children how to connect with nature and other living beings in a way they might otherwise miss.
More importantly, we're not getting a panda anytime soon. "There are people who are campaigning for us to have pandas. The issue is that it takes a significant investment, and right now pandas are not part of our conservation priority," Breheny told us. BUT NOT ALL HOPE IS LOST. "If there was support and money and financing to do pandas, we'd certainly consider it." COME HERE, BAO BAO!
The Zoo premieres Saturday at 10 p.m., on Animal Planet.
With Jake Offenhartz