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Review: The Secret Life of the Zoo

Could this be that golden opportunity you have been waiting for: pretending to watch a thought-provoking documentary while also getting the chance to compare how cute various baby animals are? The answer is only maybe.

While there are a lot of shots of cute animals interacting behind the scenes in this BBC television series made from 10 months of footage taken from Chester Zoo, there are also shots of those animals being put in life-threatening situations, and too much discussion of giant, furry spider sex for my taste. To explain more concisely: you will have to watch the birth of a baby giraffe but then you will get to see it try to stand for the first time. I was expecting to get a sort of recompense for all of those times when I went to the zoo only for the tiger to be sleeping in the back corner, barely visible. While you do get to see lots of different animals in action, that action is interrupted by a lot of other things, such as long explanations of various attempts to get the animals to mate or transferring zoo animals from one habitat to another. This was also interrupted by disjointed, random B roll of zookeepers performing routine tasks.

One welcome surprise was that, in addition to getting insight into the personalities of the animals, you get to witness the bizarre, insular culture of zookeepers as they deal with the emotional agony and eventual delusion of trying to interpret the behaviours, personalities and desires of animals with whom they cannot coherently communicate. This is the much cooler version of Starbucks workers making a game out of how many people order which drinks out of boredom. You have a number of people highly invested in Harry the elephant’s football hobby, or the relationship of two elderly penguins.

You also see the zookeepers involved in more serious issues such as the breeding of frogs who need to mate to avoid extinction, the breeding of elephants who need to mate to preserve the herd, and the breeding of zebras who need to mate just because it is that time of the year again. This show is inordinately focused on animal sex, and if you are into that, this is the show for you.

For others, this show might be a bit slow paced. While the discussion of different animal personalities and habits is interesting, and some of the footage is quite exciting, the content could use a lot of distilling. Overall, the information is delivered slowly and might make more sense as a movie than as a drawn out, multi-season show. If you cannot get enough of zoo-animal handling, this show is for you but, for the rest of us, it might be just a bit much.

Image : Dietmar Goldbeck @ Flickr

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