Zoology 101

The Zoo (Animal Planet series 2017-)

Long before quarantine I was watching more TV than I had since the ‘50s—most nights during Carola’s cancer year of 2018 we’d follow Hayes-Maddow with Swedish police procedurals featuring Kurt Wallander and Martin Beck. We also got into two preposterous classics so well-made they tickled us every time, Doc Martin and Blacklist, as well as the Helsinki procedural Roba, which devotes major screen time to beat cops driving around looking for trouble, most of it minor. But I reserve my deepest affection for a true-life procedural far more modest and sincere. It’s on Animal Planet, which compels its admirers to sit through ads for many stupider reality shows, and it’s called, simply and aptly, The Zoo.

Not to be confused, please, with the discontinued CBS James Patterson “drama” Zoo or The Zoo: San Diego, though I visit that fine facility whenever I’m in town, or even The Zoo: Meet the Babies, a recycled spinoff I might check out if I ever get tired of the reruns I’ve been rewatching so as to alert readers to this documentary series about an NYC cultural institution I believe tops even the Cloisters and the Metropolitan Museum of Art: the Bronx Zoo. This attachment is rooted in many childhood visits but was rendered permanent by parenthood. Even now the three of us often spend Nina’s June birthday there, always checking out the otters and trying to glimpse the snow leopards but also investigating less familiar byways; in 2019 I was moved to my mortal bones when a tortoise twice my age lumbered slowly but purposefully from one end of its sunstruck enclosure to the other—still alive, as Inez Fardo would say. The sheer survival of animal species is a much bigger deal now than back in 1967, when blooming radical feminist Ellen Willis convinced her pliable boss at the here-and-gone weekend-hippie monthly Cheetah to let her write a quarter-annual column about zoos called “At Home.”

Back in the freedom-mad ‘60s, zoos were equated by some with prisons, a fallacy Willis was too prescient to give the time of day. On the cusp of mass extinctions climate change is revving up as you read this, it’s easier to see today’s best zoos as ecological strongholds. As Bronx Zoo director Jim Breheny says to begin every episode: “If you ask a child to draw a picture of a zoo, chances are they’ll draw an animal behind bars. We’re gonna take that image and change it. There has to be a higher purpose. And for us, it’s the conservation of the species in the wild.” Breheny, who grew up in the Bronx neighborhood of Throgs Neck and whose first job was leading camel rides at 14, has a B.S. in biology from St. John’s and a law degree from Fordham. He’s visibly fond of many individual animals in his domain, and not just the obvious ones—he’s clearly attached a shark he helps transfer to the Brooklyn Aquarium and at ease with the gantlet he teaches a younger keeper to use in a falcon episode.

Most episodes follow four story lines, with recurring themes like ailing animal meets vet, new individuals and species join exhibit populations, the unpredictabilities of breeding and birth, and cooperative ventures with animal rescue operations and other zoos. All of these themes intersect, because the higher purpose of today’s zoos is not simply to breed cute babies to attract paying customers and fill out spinoff series but to assure that the limited species populations in zoos worldwide are as genetically diverse as possible, so that when animals are returned to their endangered habitats they can produce further generations better-equipped to thrive on their own.

So a baby bat rejected by its mother is hand-raised by a vet who spends her evenings knitting sock moms for her as she watches TV. A snow leopard cub with “swimmer syndrome”—rear legs too weak too hold it up, which puppydogs get too—is fitted with a brace and taught to walk daily until he’s strong and agile enough to join his rels. Cautiously but cordially, three gaurs from the San Diego Zoo join a herd of other Asian cattle. A deadly 18-foot king cobra is cajoled into a long plastic tube so the vet can attach an anti-fungal pump to a lesion four or five feet from its head. Two-thirds of 100 pet-trade uromastyx lizards snuck out of North Africa die despite another vet’s one-by-one care. A two-year-old male tiger who’s never met one of the opposite sex has no idea how to mount a 12-year-old female in what could be her final estrus—“Three seconds,” moans a chagrined keeper after the tyro finally gets the angle right, although a bear just back from the National Zoo lasts a full 15 with a female he’d sired a cub with two years before. And in what I bet remains the most thrilling segment of all, a once-orphaned alpaca gives birth to a son in the morning sunshine of the Children’s Zoo, where cheering kids, parents, and zoo personnel stick around for the several hours it takes the calf to figure out how to stand up and nurse, inspiring more applause as well as proud nuzzles from its mom.

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But while the chief attraction of a zoo show is obviously going to be animals, I watch The Zoo almost as much for the workers. Breheny is always around, as is senior keeper Pat Thomas, but many other employees also earn screen time, and not just keepers or vets: handymen and artists constructing new environments or gathering deadfall to refresh forest settings, squads of keepers and maintenance grunts moving larger animals from one locale or zoo to another, frontpeople for the ambassador programs in which individual animals do PR for their species. Whatever the literal breakdown, it feels (and sounds) like everyone onscreen is from the Bronx. Although the scattered Ph.D’s and D.V.M.’s tend white, the racial mix is broad, with young Hispanics on the rise and women slightly outnumbering men. Clothing is loose and casual—I don’t recall a single necktie—and wedding rings are by no means standard. While higher-echelon personnel handle the scientific stuff, almost everybody involved can add an enlightening sentence or two, and these are always observant, respectful, and affectionate. Never is there a hint of the crude self-promotion that makes reality television a fauxbiz wasteland. These people don’t want to be famous, they want to work with animals, and why shouldn’t they? On how many jobs is it possible to leave every afternoon knowing you’ve made the world a better place? How many TV shows give off even a whiff of that feeling?

Not counting those alpacas, my favorite moment in The Zoo comes when it’s time for the vet who’d spent six weeks raising the orphaned bat to release her into the pergora, a holding arbor that will prepare her for the Jungle World exhibit, where she’ll spend the rest of her life flitting around among other almost indistinguishable flying rodents.. “Bye,” the vet says, a bit choked up. “Go. Be a bat.”

The Bronx Zoo reopened to members on July 20 and will start accommodating to the general public July 24. Reservations will be required for all visitors.

Correction: It has been pointed out to me that bats are not flying rodents. They are merely flying mammals, and as such the second largest order of mammals, after rodents. Which is pretty damn impressive if you ask me.—RC

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