The Secret Life Of The Zoo



It’s a shame they only made one series of the BBC drama Our Zoo, about how Chester Zoo was established in the 1930s, but Channel 4 did a documentary series about modern day Chester Zoo, so you could view it as a sequel of sorts.

This documentary series was narrated by Olivia Colman and showed behind the scenes of Chester Zoo. It is one of the world leaders in preserving endangered species. 99% of the animals there were born in captivity, and some have been at Chester Zoo for 60 years!

An elephant herd in the zoo includes a large adult male, Aung Bo. In the wild this would be unusual, as elephant herds are adult females and calves. Although apparently adult male
elephants aren’t quite as solitary as you might think, while they aren’t part of herds they spend time socialising with other adult male elephants. The programme gave a reason that in the wild males are ousted from the herd. As they become adults they become too much trouble and don’t co-operate like the females do, so it’s better for the herd if they
aren’t in it.

The matriarch of the herd, Thi, is pregnant and due to give birth. 11 years ago she gave birth to a stillborn calf, and the zoo keepers had to remove it as Thi didn’t want to leave it. We see the birth of Thi’s new calf, and luckily it is healthy. It is a very cute baby elephant who the keepers name Nandita.

Another baby elephant Hari was shown kicking a large metal ball around almost like he was playing football. He was a bit of an “annoying little brother” type to his older sister Sithami, and when his younger sister Nandita is born he becomes jealous that he’s not the baby of the family any more, and all the adult females in the herd are fussing over her. He kicks her, it reminded me a bit of Harry and Lulu in Harry Enfield and Chums. But eventually Hari and Nandita appear to get on better and play together.

There will be more going on with the animals than we can understand. Elephants for instance communicate with low-frequency sounds which we can’t even hear.

Sadly, this herd suffers a lot of tragedy, as they have lost two young male elephants to a virus. We see another elephant succumb to it, Bala. She had been quite close to her brother Hari and had been learning to be a mother from looking after Nandita. But at some point she contracted the virus. She didn’t want to spend time with Hari or Nandita anymore.
When she passed away Hari tried to get her back up, apparently for quite a long time. We then learn in the final episode that Hari caught the virus and passed away too.
The only bit of good news we get is that two of the elephants in the herd are pregnant.

Meerkats are a popular attraction. They look funny stood upright, their heads popping up behind tree logs. They see a passing aeroplane and run back to their burrows. But it’s all for a good reason. In the wild they have lots of predators they have to look out for, so from their point of view an aeroplane could be some sort of predatory bird.

Reptiles and invertebrates aren’t as popular. They are often cast as villains in children’s programmes. Beast Wars is an example, when the Predacons are all dinosaurs
and invertebrates, in contrast to the good Maximals who are all mammals and birds. But this is mainly down to appearance. Scales and exoskeletons might not look as cute as fur and feathers, but this is inherently superficial. It doesn’t mean those animals are any nastier, and reptiles and invertebrates are just as important to the ecosystem.

As cute as penguins are, it’s largely due to their appearance. A keeper, Mark, said the penguin enclosure was like a strange village where everyone wears a dinner jacket. They can get aggressive. They have a lot of muscle, as a keeper Andy puts it they have “a very sharp, serrated bread knife on the front of the face”. They also aren’t as monogamous as you might think, but one couple in the zoo is an exception. Spike, a 19-year-old female and Rud, a 22-year-old male are very faithful to each other and spend all their time together. By penguin standards, they are very elderly. In the wild, most penguins only live to about 15 years old.

Rud’s advanced age is taking its toll on his health. He has arthritis and can’t move about as much. The zoo has to often take the difficult decision of putting animals to sleep if they are in pain and suffering. Rud had to be taken to the vets. Happily, the vet found that Rud was still healthy enough to return to the enclosure. After waiting for the anesthetic to wear off, he was reunited with Spike. There had been younger male penguins trying to get with Spike while Rud was gone, and sometimes even when Rud was there, pushing him aside, but Spike wasn’t having any of it. This old penguin couple seem devoted to one another.

Anne, the keeper in charge of the penguin enclosure, said it was like in the wild, but safer. They try to get it like their natural environment, but keep an eye on them and make sure if one is struggling or ill they can help it out. Anne has been working with penguins for 18 years, and said that penguins may look cuddly and cute, but they can whack you with their flippers which feels a bit like being hit with a ruler. They are also very solid muscle rather than fluffy. But she also said you become almost like a foster parent. “You get the odd greedy one” and we see her feeding the penguins and her telling them “Penguins in Africa would love this fish!”. Breakfast for penguins is provided at the zoo – fish and vitamin supplements.

Anne noted that they have to be careful how they teach the penguins, as they don’t realise at first that if she leaves the fish underwater rather than feeding them directly, they can get the fish for themselves, so they have to make sure they learn it. Even if the fish is left in the water, we see a heron come and gobble it all up!

We see some penguin fledglings who are kept in a separate baby pool away from the main penguin pool. They are eager to go in the big pool though! Sulawesi, the most
cocky one and leader of the fledgling group, even escapes and goes into the big pool by himself. However, he can’t compete for fish with the adults yet, so Anne retrieves him and takes him back to the baby pool.

Despite wanting to go into the big pool, when it is time to go the fledglings don’t want to leave! They want to stay in their box. The first to venture out isn’t Sulawesi, but another fledgling, Panay. He ventures out into the deep end and is there for 2 hours on his own. The keepers decide they have to overturn their boxes and drain the nursery pool to get them to leave. That doesn’t work, so they have to carry them to the big pool themselves and lock the gate. Apparently, they all settled in OK though.

Phillippine cockatoos have a problem with the males getting aggressive and sometimes even killing the female, but a couple we see don’t have that problem. Renton is
very gentle, and he and his mate Maganda get on well. They “allopreen”, preening each others feathers on the back of their neck. The only problem is Renton is quite a bit older than Maganda, he has a bad hip and he may even be too old to still breed. But they seem to love each other.

Aardvarks, known for being one of the first words in the dictionary, are one of the quirkiest creatures in the animal kingdom. Describing them to someone who hasn’t seen one before is a bit like when Greek mythologies described their mythical monsters. Ears like a rabbit, tail like a kangaroo, snout like a pig, claws like a mole and tongue like a lizard. The first time I’d ever heard of an aardvark was from ’90s Children’s BBC puppet Otis the Aardvark, and at first I thought he was meant to be some sort of hybrid creature. Aardvarks are very cute though, and they do look adorable sleeping, which they do during the day as they are nocturnal animals. The zoo gives them “termite soup” for lunch. It’s difficult to tell males and females apart. The zoo thought Tatsu and Himba were male and female, but it turned out they were both female! Added to this group is another female, a juvenile named Onni who is usually the first to wake up.

Naked mole rats live in a eusocial colony, rather like bees and ants, and have different roles, a queen, workers and soldiers. In their native East Africa they live in underground burrows. Here they are in clear tubes, which is surreal to see, and they are very strange looking anyway. Queen Janet is pregnant with 28 babies(!) which she has to give birth to on top of whole colony.

We have three generations of chimp. Boris, 49, used to be the dominant male but is now more of an elder. He used to be aggressive, but has mellowed with age. Dylan, 28,
is the current alpha male, and upstart teenager Eric keeps trying to push him off his throne.

A keeper, Niall, has known Boris for 44 years and they have developed a bond. He can negotiate with Boris more. Boris likes to take stuff like stones or even ducklings
and moorhen chicks to exchange for food! They know Boris was caught in the wild, as his one-time owner took him to the vet thinking he had a boil on his eyebrow, but it turned out to be a shotgun pellet. What often happens is that hunters shoot the mother and pull the baby chimp off the mother’s dead body, then sell the baby as a pet to unsuspecting customers.

The chimps generally don’t like the vets. One of them, Rosie, is particularly hostile. She throws cups of water, her own crap and other chimp’s crap at the vets.

Orangutans are naturally inquisitive. One of the keepers, Chris said “It doesn’t really matter if it’s the smallest bug or a robot dinosaur, if it’s new they’ll take an interest in it”.
In the wild, female orangutans only have five babies in their whole life, with about nine years between them. But a female, Subis, unexpectedly gives birth just under
3 years from having her last baby. The keepers think it might be because she knows the zoo is a safe environment. It can be a problem though, as in the wild chimp infants
stay close to their mothers for 10 years. Her older daughter, Tuti isn’t getting as much attention. So she goes to see her father, Puluh, but he isn’t interested. However, after a while Subis finds a way to make sure she gives enough time to both Tuti and her new daughter Siska.

There are some cute scenes of Tuti climbing straps almost like a tightrope walker.

Some otters share an enclosure with some babirusa, but the two families don’t get on. The babirusa steal the otter’s fish, and the otters actually seem to have the upper hand despite being much smaller, regularly nipping at the babirusa and driving them away.

One otter family is a mother, Icana, and two daughters Maxa and Ruma. Their father Xingu died when they were still pups, and it was mentioned that there was a poignant moment when one of the pups kept trying to feed their dad bringing him food after he had died.

There is a family of Sumatran tigers. Father Fabi, mother Kirana, sons Topan and Jaya and daughter Kasarana. In the wild, tigers don’t raise families in pairs, the female does it on her own, but this couple raising the family appears to work well. Topan and Jaya are quite boistrous and spend a lot of time with their father and seem to see him as a role model and like to copy him. Kasarana is smaller, and very nervous and keeps close to her mother, who seems to have more patience with her than she does with her sons.

They are being moved to a larger enclosure, and there is months of training for them to get used to moving crates, as that experience is likely to be quite frightening. All animals, including humans, can be dangerous when they’re frightened. Tigers have been known to kill zoo keepers, and there is a danger they can turn on each other. Fortunately, the move for this tiger family goes smoothly.

Moving into the tiger’s old enclosure are two Malayan sun bears, Milli and Toni. Their parents were shot and killed, and they were taken as cubs to be sold as pets, so have spent most of their lives in captivity. Milli took to the new location straight away, Toni was a bit more nervous at first, but he got used to it. The keepers had to hide food around the enclosure to encourage the two bears and find it for themselves.

There is a danger of overpopulation too, with two jaguars Napo, a male golden jaguar, and Goshi, a female black jaguar, living and playing together, but kept as a non-breeding pair. Napo was described as “chilled out”, while Goshi was described as “feisty”. They were shown playing with a big ball of lavender hanging from a string. Napo tried to open it, but gave up. However, when Goshi tried to go for it, Napo ran to grab it right back!

We see a giraffe Orla in the final stages of her 15 month pregnancy giving birth to a son, Kidepo. The baby giraffe tries to get up on his long legs and trips up several times, which is normal. They have to stand quickly, as they need to reach their mother’s udder. Newborn, he is already taller than the zoo keepers! His father, Meru, isn’t welcoming to his new son. He starts swinging his neck and kicking him. This is common with bull giraffes, they are keen to show their dominance and can be aggressive towards other males, even if it is a baby.

Black rhinos are in danger of extinction, with only 600 left in the wild. The zoo tries to get Kitani to breed. She had a calf which died, and they had to remove it, but she kept looking for it, and has been depressed ever since. They want to try to get her to mate again, bringing in Magadi, who is a stud in the literal sense, having fathered many calves in the zoo. They put a barrier between Magadi and Kitani just to be on the safe side. There doesn’t seem to be a spark at first. He gives her hay and branches through the gate. Eventually something seems to develop, and they are introduced properly.

They have three zebra mares. Florence, Nadine and her daughter Merida. They want to introduce a stallion, Mac to them for them to breed. Zebra mares seem to like “bad boys”. The stallion has to be aggressive towards them or they lose respect for him and won’t let him mate with them. Mac seems this way at first, but at some point something goes wrong, because the mares gang up on him. They chase him, bite him, won’t let him near the food and water. The keepers decide to remove him for his own good. In the wild, he could just walk away, but he can’t at the zoo. He is moved to a separate field, and seems very happy to be away from the mares. But we later find out he did eventually get somewhere with the mares, and two are pregnant by him!

Komodo dragon siblings Jantan and Ora have to be separated after Jantan attacked and nearly killed Ora. The keepers don’t think it was intentional, even that he might
have been trying to win her respect. They try to get the dragons to make up with a reconciliation dinner of a calf carcass, and they seem to get on.

There is an attempt to get tarantulas to mate in captivity.  Tarantula mating is tricky though. The male has to make a “sperm web” and gather it up! He is also risking his life if he mates. 50% of male tarantulas are killed by the females during or after mating! A male, NT16 manages to mate with a female, named W6, and escapes with his life, but it doesn’t result in a pregnancy.

Mountain chicken frogs, also known as the giant ditch frog, are extremely rare. They are only found in Dominica and Montserrat, and in the latter there are only 2 left in the wild.
So zoos all over the world are trying to breed them, which has been difficult. They try to set a male and female up as a sort of blind date in a love nest, but after 2 weeks they don’t seem to get on. In fact, the female tries to escape several times! They remove her, and try another female, but things take a tragic turn when they find that this new female has a disease that has become so advanced and no treatment will help, so they have to euthanise her. It is always sad when they have to take that decision, but given that this species is on the brink of extinction it is even harder for the keepers.

There is the crocodile couple that were brought in from a French zoo, Francois and Francoise. Like all crocodiles, one way they communicate is by blowing bubbles! Francoise loves the attention of the public, but Francois doesn’t seem to trust humans. So the keepers have to stay out of his eye line and put a plucked chicken on the end of a piece of string – essentially, as if they were fishing for crocodiles!

A similarly surreal scene is seeing the keepers trying to catch fruitbats in a big net like butterflies.

The keepers at Chester Zoo try not to interfere too much, hoping the animals can sort things out for themselves and can raise their own young, and they try to create an environment that will be close to what the animals would find in the wild. However, they try to help them out medically as much as they can. Despite it being advised not to get
too attached to the animals, as they have to be professionals, it can be difficult not to. A keeper Andy notes that it isn’t really possible to not form a connection, because you get to know their personalities. Niall also said that obviously you’re going to have favourites because you are drawn to individuals.

A keeper Kirsten said “The more time I spend working with animals the more it actually teaches me about humans” and “We are just another species in the animal kingdom”. Like animals, we have our own relationships and social hierarchies.

The Secret Life of The Zoo was quite sweet, and interesting. While there was a lot of anthropomorphism, I think it was partly to get the audience to understand what is going on. Individual animals all have different personalities, and while they are far from as advanced as humans are they have their own societies and relationships. In any case, it was a good programme. It may have better fortunes than Our Zoo and get a second series.

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