Planet Earth is coming to the urban jungle. On Saturday night, for the first time in the history of the landmark series, BBC America's Planet Earth II will take on the subject of cities, with stops in Mumbai, Rome, Barbados, Jodhpur, Harrar, and, thankfully, New York.

The series needs no endorsement—if mind-boggling nature footage narrated by David Attenborough and set to a Hans Zimmer score isn't your bag, what is?—but it's worth pointing out that this final episode is especially perfect. It features urban leopards in Mumbai, langur monkeys vaulting across rooftops in India, and peregrine falcons plunging into the Hudson River, the footage of which offers a view of New York unlike anything you've ever seen. Later on in the episode, Sir Attenborough appears on screen (another first for the series) and when he speaks into the camera, you feel as though the 90-year-old British naturalist is delivering the sum total of human knowledge right into your soul. It is a very good piece of television, is my point.

Ahead of Saturday's finale, we caught up with the episode's executive producer, Fredi Devas, to talk about the time he almost got eaten by hyenas, the difference between urban and non-urban animals, and the odds of New Yorkers throwing a rat funeral on Fifth Avenue.

Could you talk a bit about the decision to expand Planet Earth into cities?

Well, personally I thought it was great a decision.

Me too.

But making this series, we thought that we needed to stay true to the name of Planet Earth, but at the same time bring it into the modern day and freshen it up. It's really recently that the urban environment has been considered a suitable habitat for wildlife, so it's quite something to wrap your head around, when I first took it on. But there are so many surprising and extraordinary examples of animals overcoming the hurdles of living in this environment.

I had no idea that the highest density of peregrine falcons live in New York City.

It's absolutely extraordinary.

Those shots of Manhattan were surreal, I don't understand how you got most of them. How was the process of filming in New York different from nature documentaries you've done in the past?

It's totally different. I think New York City was the best example of how different the urban context is to filming in the wilderness. Normally, to film in, say, a National Park, you'd get a countywide filming permit and then a national park filming permit, and off you'd go for a month. But in New York City, we knew that peregrines were nesting in different places throughout the city and so once we knew where their nests were, then we had to try to get access, not just say on the buildings to the north, but what if they were to generally hunt and fly on the south side, or the west side or the east side. So each one of these nests we had to try to get vantage points from all four sides from the tops of skyscrapers. So it was a very lengthy process getting permissions in place. It took nine months in total to get the filming permissions in place.

We also did a lot of filming in a helicopter. That was where we were really able to get the peregrines in the sky, for example, when we pull out from the peregrines that are on the spire on top of the church. Because peregrines are so used to police helicopters, they didn't bat an eyelid at all.

There seems to be an underlying theme throughout the entire episode about how animals who live in cities are fundamentally different than their non-city counterparts. Do you think that's a fair reading?

It's an interesting question. I think there are selection pressures to living in the city that are very different than the selection pressures they face in their natural habitat. That means that certain animals are much more likely to do well in cities than others. So one well-documented thing is looking at carnivores. If you look at medium carnivores, they do very well. The large carnivores—the grizzly bears and such—they tend to make it maybe just into suburbia. But beyond that, people don't tolerate them. I mean other than the exceptions like leopards in Mumbai, for example, they tend to not penetrate right into the heart of cities. And small carnivores tend to be the wrong scale, because a lot of the food that they might scavenge on is all done to human proportions. Animals likes foxes and raccoons are doing particularly well. So that's one selection pressure across species.

Then within species, and this was shown with raccoons, there seems to be selection pressures as well. So city raccoons have been shown to be more intelligent than their country counterparts. What that means is that they're given novel problems to solve, they're prepared to spend more time looking at how to solve it, and they're more likely to solve the problem. It might be that it's just those particular raccoons that wander into the city, and they do well there, whereas the other ones that don't have the higher intelligence, don't do so well, and so they return to the countryside. It might be that that's driving that trend.


Toward the end of this episode, David Attenborough makes this really impassioned on-camera speech about the importance of building cities that are in harmony with nature. For fans of the series, seeing him on-screen is jarring, but I also thought it was really powerful. Was this something that was planned throughout the series?

That was something I was extremely keen to have happen. I was very, very happy when it did happen. I mean David Attenborough is hugely respected in Britain, and I think many other places throughout the world, and his view on lots of topics are quite well-reported. But I didn't really know what his views were on urban wildlife, so I was very keen to have him at the end of the film summing up his thoughts on urban wildlife, and what it meant to him about the people wanting to maintain a connection to nature while living in cities. We were all as a team extremely happy when that decision was made and we were able to do it. And David Attenborough was really happy as well. He's really passionate about the subject, he's really passionate about the need for people to maintain this connection to nature.

It's also amazing to me that the BBC was able to invest this much time and money — the first series took 5 years and $25 million to complete. Meanwhile in America, our government is trying to eliminate funding for public broadcasting, arts, the humanities, among other things. What would you say to an American politician who can't see the point of this sort of project?

The reason behind these landmark natural series is, I think, really to remind people just how special the natural world is and how important it is to preserve it, and to give people the feelings of awe they get from watching this series. What's also fascinating is that I'm now collaborating with a scientist who's using this wildlife footage in different medical settings, showing that it can significantly reduce anxiety. It can significantly reduce pain, for example in dentistry care and it can reduce boredom in palliative care—those people who are kind of waiting to die. Those uses are also very exciting for us as wildlife filmmakers.

In terms of excitement, there are some scenes in this episode where it seems like the filmmakers might be in serious danger. I'm specifically thinking about the hyenas in Ethiopia. Can you talk about that a little bit?

So, quite a few years ago—20 years ago now—I went on a walking safari in Uganda with a friend of mine and a guide. On our way back, when the sun was setting, we were circled by two hyenas, and they were getting closer and closer, and definitely interested in us. So I turned to the guide and I said, "Do you have any bullets for your gun?" And he said, "No," which was the answer I was expecting from him. And I said, "Should we run," and he said, "Yes." We took off back to camp. We were really quite frightened, all three of us.

So, when I heard that there are hyenas in this town in Harar [Ethiopia] and that they are freely roaming through the streets at night, I thought, well, I really have to see it to believe it. So I went out and on the first night, at about 1:00 o'clock in the morning, I was on my own, and I wandered down this very dark, cobbled alleyway and eight hyenas turned in and started walking toward me. And that was my intention to find the hyenas, but only then did I realize that they could make ridiculously short work of me if they wanted to. That would be an easy dinner for them, a nice sized meal. And they walked right past me and two of them brushed past my leg.

Just a few nights later I was surrounded by over 100 hyenas that were having a massive clan war, and I had no fear at all. I think it's because by then I'd seen the hyenas walking past people so many times and seen that it truly was a peaceful pack. For me that's the most surprising piece of the episode.

Was that your favorite place that you traveled to?

Well, that's interesting. I really loved filming the langurs in Jodhpur [India]. I did a PhD in baboon behavior, so I've spent a lot of time around wild baboons in the desert in Namibia. I love watching primate behavior and trying to understand primate society. So spending all that time around langurs in Jodhpur was really special, because they're fascinating creatures. It's pretty exhilarating watching the males do this parkour as they chase each other around the rooftops.

They're also sort of wonderfully regal creatures. If you're there and the locals are handing out handfuls of peanuts, then they'll hold on to the hand that the peanut is in, and then pick a peanut at a time. Then when they've had a few peanuts, they'll shuffle along the wall, and then the next one will just shuffle up and take his turn. There's not much grabbing, it's all very peaceful and calm. That's quite unusual amongst primates, so that felt pretty special to spend so much time around them.

And the fact that they're just beloved by the local population.

Yeah that was really inspiring. Just all around India, the tolerance of people to the wildlife in their cities was amazing. With regards to the langurs, it's not just tolerance, they adore them and they look after them really well. If they find any sick ones, they'll care for them. And a really extraordinary story is that if a Hanuman langur is found dead in Jodhpur, and especially if this happens on a Tuesday—it's likely either way, but if it's a Tuesday it will definitely happen—it will be picked up, it will be cleaned, it will be painted and then a throne will be built for it. It will be paraded down the street and there will be 25-30 people at least that gather, playing music and singing songs and burning incense and offering flowers and all kinds of gifts. Then it will be given a funeral, just like a human would be given a funeral. They really do consider these animals in such a spiritual manner. They revere them in a way that's extraordinary to see.

I'm trying to imagine New Yorkers gathering around for a rat funeral down 5th avenue...

Maybe. Maybe in time to come.

The finale of BBC AMERICA’s Planet Earth II airs this Saturday at 9 ET.