It’s Big Brother for animals: meet the new – somewhat hairier – group of reality TV personalities about to invade your living room as Channel 4’s latest fixed-rig camera series turns its focus on the enclosures at Chester Zoo.
In The Secret Life of the Zoo, viewers will get an unrestricted, 24-hour look into the goings-on at the much-loved “zoo without bars”, which opened in 1931. The programme will showcase the zoo’s pioneering research and dedicated keepers, but the real stars are, of course, the animals – whose charisma and charm will capture viewers’ hearts.
The very first episode features a rare treat – the birth of an elephant. Which is followed by the temper tantrums of a toddler who has been usurped as the baby of the herd.
As well as introducing us to chimps who throw their weight (and worse) around, territorial meerkats and love-struck otters, the six- part series will exploit the powerful emotional pull that animals can have on us all. We’ll share their joy and feel the heartbreak when things go wrong – a grave and very present threat when caring for critically endangered species.
Time to meet the zoomates, introduced by the keepers who know them best.
A MEERKAT MATRIARCH — by Kirsten Wicks
Our dominant female meerkat
is eight or nine years old — we haven’t given her a name, we don’t want to treat them like pets. Mummy meerkat’s very chilled out, but she’ll throw her weight around if there’s food involved.
Meerkats are social animals, and everyone’s got their place: the males will be on sentry duty, and the females will often lactate to help feed others’ young. They’re charismatic for visitors to watch, because they’re so busy. We can give them a new branch, and it’ll keep them entertained for days.
A CHEEKY CHIMP — by Niall Ormerod
Eric’s 12, and he’s too big for his boots. He used to be a mummy’s boy, and was upset when his mother died, but now he can be a real pain, and needs putting in his place, big-time. Dylan’s our current dominant male — I sometimes think he ought to take Eric round the corner and give him a good thrashing!
Eric causes a lot of trouble, winding the other chimps up, upsetting everybody when they’re trying to sleep.
He’s got courage, but it’s misplaced. Most young chimps watch the older males and copy their behaviour — but Eric’s learning on the job and, like a bull at a gate, going for it. Working with chimpanzees, you learn to be patient. And they’re fairer than people. If one of them transgresses, they’ll expect to get punished by the rest of the group.
THE LOVING OTTERS — by Hannah Sievewright
Robbie and Daisy are a lovely pair of otters — great parents, whose offspring are all over the world. Daisy’s friendly and very greedy — she learnt a trick where she can grab a fish under both arms and one in her mouth, so Robbie was left with nothing.
Like all male otters, Robbie plays an active role in rearing the young. He’s a gentleman, he always feeds his family first. We had problems with him losing weight because he was giving all his food away.
Their son Wallace is exactly the same — he’s our primary breeder now. We have to keep the genepool fresh, so Robbie and Daisy have retired to a zoo up the road now. I’ve been to visit them — when you work with the same animals every day, you do get a particular fondness for them. I was gutted when they left.
THE TROUBLESOME TOTS — by Alan Littlehales
Two-year-old Hari is a lovely little elephant who behaves just like a human toddler. The girls his age try to be part of the family and pretend to suckle the babies — whereas Hari’s up to mischief. He’s obsessed with knocking the new baby over! He’s a chilled little guy really, but he’s always winding up the girls. He picks his targets, though — he wouldn’t mess with his grandma.
Hari’s my favourite of all the babies we’ve had at the zoo. I like what he radiates; he’s calm. The elephant birth in the series was moving, but Hari’s story is even more emotional.
The Secret Life of the Zoo airs Tuesday at 08:00 pm on Channel 4