Cable show brings animals, people together at Bronx Zoo

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It took a trip to the zoo before Lisa Lucas truly understood the impact “The Zoo” would make.

Lucas, an executive producer at the Animal Planet cable channel that airs “The Zoo,” attended a screening of the first episode at the Bronx Zoo before its premiere in February and afterward, ran into one of the zookeepers featured in the shows. When she introduced herself, the zookeeper was already overcome with tears.

“My family has never understood what I did, and now they know,” she said to Lucas. “Now everybody knows what we do here.” 

That feeling of understanding and appreciation was the underlying theme of “The Zoo’s” first season. From feeding snow leopards to saving Tanzanian toads from extinction, the show features more than 100 staff members who help maintain day-to-day life at the Bronx Zoo.

“The Zoo” returns next year for its second season, and filming is now underway at the show’s home here in the Bronx.

“We see all the kind of pretty stuff,” Lucas said. “But I don’t think a lot of us realize what goes into (a zoo), the effort that goes into it, and the manpower and hours that go into it behind the scenes.”

For years, Bronx Zoo director Jim Breheny felt people had misconceptions about zoos, believing they were only a place for people to watch animals. 

So when an opportunity arose to show viewers the full extent of a zoo’s operations, Breheny wanted to showcase a more complex side to working with animals from around the world.

“We really wanted to change the conversations about zoos, kind of take the conversations back about zoos,” he said. “But we wanted to do it in a way that was organic and that people would embrace. I think with Animal Planet, we found this platform that’s worked out really well.”

Armed with two camera crews, Animal Planet worked four days a week to tell stories that were either planned or happened to take place that day. This was the first time that the zoo has given this level of access to anyone, Breheny said. 

“In the beginning, it was actually a little weird for us,” he said. “But all of the people on the production crews were really great and professional, and we work really well together.”

By the end of the season, Breheny and zoo curator Pat Thomas agreed that both sides understood their jobs more. And to them, the television crew had become advocates for the institution.

“The Zoo’s” first season on Animal Planet drew in an average of more than a million viewers per episode, making it Animal Planet’s most-watched new series since July 2015, according to The Hollywood Reporter. So when the network announced last month “The Zoo” was returning for a second season, no one was surprised.

“You wait with bated breath to hear the good news,” Lucas said. “It’s just nice that once you get the official green light, then it’s sort of boots on the ground and you start shooting quickly.”

With that in mind, the entire crew returned and started filming the show’s second season in June, which premieres in early 2018.

But the show’s impact hasn’t died down with a lack of new episodes. Zoo staffers who were once nameless faces are still well-known among many visitors, Thomas said.

“People visiting the zoo recognize them, thank them for what they do, something that really didn’t happen before the show aired,” he said.

Visitors also are excited to meet another celebrity, Mert the Goose, who has lived at the zoo since 1989. Mert was featured in the second episode of the series, revealing him as a 28-year-old sassy goose who used to love chasing people around when he was younger. 

Lucas described the passion from those working at the zoo in the first season as infectious. Even a newlywed couple on their honeymoon trekked all the way to the Bronx to see familiar faces from their television screen.

“To see people be able to name the animals, name the keepers, and recall the stories is pretty impressive,” Lucas said. “And this is in Season 1. Very often it takes many seasons for people to recognize names and recall specific stories, but it happened pretty quickly, which was a lot of fun to see.” 

As the show continues to grow acclaim among animal lovers, Lucas said there’s a chance it might also make a difference in the lives of younger viewers.

 

“We could be inspiring the next generation of zoo staffers,” she said, “whether they’re at the Bronx Zoo or anywhere else.”

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