New TV series offers a close-up of the Columbus Zoo

Chris Gaitten
Columbus Zoo and Aquarium keeper Sheri Smith, left, distracts a giraffe named Lance while Scott Shelley draws blood.

Have you ever contemplated what it’s like to nurse polar bear cubs? Or considered the logistics of moving a manatee from the Florida Keys to Columbus and back again? Or wondered whether or not flamingos greet their caretakers? Wonder no more.

This May, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium will answer those questions and give curious audiences a look behind the Plexiglas via “Zoo Life,” a new TV show set to air on Nat Geo Wild. The series features six one-hour episodes shot at the zoo and its sister facility in southeastern Ohio, The Wilds. Unlike previous shows, which often revolved around longtime zoo persona and director emeritus Jack Hanna, “Zoo Life” instead focuses on animal care staff members and their daily work.

Tom Stalf, the zoo’s president and CEO, says the idea for the show emerged from internal talks about how to ensure that the public understands the importance of zoos. If he stopped people on the street to ask about the Columbus Zoo, he thinks they would probably tell him how they love coming to visit the animals and to have a great time with family. “And that’s exactly what we want to hear,” Stalf says, “but we also want people to realize that there’s a greater good that’s happening here.”

Hoping to show off the zoo’s education and preservation work, Stalf and his colleagues brought in a production crew to document it all. “Zoo Life” includes footage of animal health care and conservation efforts, like the manatee program, which rescues and rehabilitates injured, sick or orphaned animals until they can return home to Florida. The show also will allow viewers to experience the fun of working at the zoo, Stalf says, as well as the uncomfortable positions staff wind up in while doing less glamorous jobs. (In a “Zoo Life” trailer released on Jan. 12, Hanna puts it bluntly: “We got animals, we got keepers and a whole lot of poo.”)

Stalf says he hasn’t yet seen the show, which is likely still being edited, but he hopes it will highlight the importance of the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds for the community and for global conservation. And to be successful, he knows it will have to be entertaining. “I hope the show will make you laugh, it’s going to make you cry,” he says. “I hope that it inspires people to care about animals.”

Check out the “Zoo Life” trailer below.