Every time I go to a zoo or reserve, I always look for the animals’ names.
When a plaque or display reveals the animal names, it helps me to make a stronger connection with the animals. They become more than creatures. It’s just like asking a person their name and getting to know them a bit better.
It also tells me that the zoo cares enough to give them names. While not all the animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom have names posted, I always wanted to believe they were all named, loved, and properly cared for.
The new series, Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, on Disney+ reveals what I always wanted to know about Animal Kingdom—it’s a nice zoo, right? I mean, we all saw Tiger King, and we know what a lousy zoo or reserve looks like at this point.
Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom confirms my hopes. Josh Gad (yep, Olaf) narrates each episode, but it is the keepers and veterinarian staff’s commentary that make the series come alive.
The love of the staff for the animals completes the Animal Kingdom picture for me.
Backstage at Animal Kingdom is full of Cast Members who really care about the animals. And they often find themselves in breathtaking and surprising situations.
Like shoving meatballs into a 144-pound pumpkin for Anala, the Sumatran tiger you may recognize from the Maharajah Jungle Trek. Or giving an ultrasound to Peri the prehensile-tailed porcupine to see if she’s got a bun in the oven.
Peri and her keeper’s story is an excellent example of the relationships that the humans at Animal Kingdom form with the resident creatures.
Ashley, one of her keepers, spoke about Peri like an old friend, “I love porcupines, and Peri’s got a special place in my heart because when I joined Disney three years ago, she was the first animal that I was able to work with.”
Watching Ashley excitedly speculate on whether or not Peri was pregnant was telling of the amount of care that the keepers have for their wards.
Not Just Another Nature Show
I was invited to a press conference this month to hear from the team at Animal Kingdom before the release of the series and ask a few questions about behind-the-scenes at Animal Kingdom.
In attendance were Imagineer, Joe Rohde; Vice President of Animals, Science, and Environment, Dr. Mark Penning; Veterinarian, Dr. Dan Fredholm; and Animal Manager, Rachel Daneault.
Dr. Mark noted the human element, “We layered on top of [the animal footage] our desire to show the incredible relationships of trust between the animals and the people that take care of them and how passionate we all are about saving these animals in the wild.”
Joe Rohde, who led the entire design and storytelling efforts for Animal Kingdom, contributed his storytelling skills to the series on Disney+.
Joe said of the stories told in each episode, “I think first, there is a level of theatrical storytelling. We frame all animal experiences within a thematic and narrative experience, so it isn’t just presenting animals for your consideration. It is the experience of being in a place suffused with story in which, when you do finally see these animals, the moment is filled with additional meaning. “
And, as always, Joe is right. This isn’t just another nature show. I’m tuning in for the drama of finding out with Ashley about Peri’s pregnancy and laughing with the keepers as Anala figures out how to crack that meatball pumpkin.
There are plenty of funny moents. For example, we see keeper Jess encounter a rhinoceros traffic jam. She’ll have to wait for Helen to finish cleaning her horn.
Bringing Animal Kingdom Home
I asked the group what they hope the one big takeaway for the show would be for the viewers.
Rachel Daneault: “I hope people really realize that what we are doing here is fairly cutting-edge. We’re considered leaders in this industry and I hope that comes through, um, in the show, because we’re doing some really amazing things.”
Joe Rohde: [This show] is a place where the more you know, the richer your experience of the place. So simply by seeing the show, the next time you come to [Animal Kingdom], your experience will be fuller, will be richer, uh, will be more rewarding.
Dr. Dan: “…We love these animals and there is a real, palpable bond that I hope will come across when you watch the show.”
Dr. Mark: “We’re so passionate about protecting wildlife and wild spaces. And if we can just inspire people to think about nature and to take care of the nature in their backyard, I will consider this a big success.”
Beyond Animal Kingdom
Within Animal Kingdom park, we even get a closer look at the lives and relationships of the animals we once glimpsed at Kilimanjaro Safaris, Gorilla Falls, and the multitude of other sections of the park. There are hundreds of stories to tell.
But I really love venturing to see some of the other wildlife I’ve wondered about at WDW.
The series was filmed at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and at EPCOT’s The Seas with Nemo and Friends, so expect to see a lot of familiar creature faces.
If you’ve ever visited the Animal Kingdom Lodge and gazed out at the savannah, you’ve probably had the same thoughts as I have: Where do those animals go at night? Are they happy? What are their lives like out there?
In one episode, we saw Stark, a new baby steenbok (an adorable African antelope) at Animal Kingdom Lodge just hours after he was born. We will follow him as he grows, supported by his keepers as he battles a leg disorder.
Later in the series, we will visit the Seas at EPCOT to see Harry, a sea turtle new to the parks. He was injured by a boat and is now being cared for by aquarist Aaron, who is eager to note how much Harry loves back (shell) scratches. Harry is one of over 300 sea turtles brought to the Seas for rehabilitation and release.
I Care That They Care
Zoos, sanctuaries, and reserves are some of my favorite places to visit. I’d rather spend time with the animals than ride Haunted Mansion. Crazy, I know.
Animal-lovers who visit zoos often struggle with that feeling of hoping your ticket money is going toward the care and conservation of the animals you share the space with.
I’ve heard a lot over the years about the high level of care that the animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom receive. Still, it’s so reassuring to see real human and animal relationships develop throughout this series.
Joe Rohde summed up my feelings about the show best, so I’ll let him have the last word:
“The show is actually a show about emotions, about the emotional investment of the people in the lives of these animals, that come together at this moment where design meets.”
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