Jim Breheny, the director of the Bronx Zoo, has been working at the New York City attraction since he was a 14-year-old volunteer. The Bronx native met his wife of 20 years, Kathleen LaMattina, at the zoo (shes the collections manager for program animals) and the two married on the grounds.
But while their life and the lives of the Bronx Zoos 500-plus employees revolve around the facility, Breheny thinks the majority of people just dont understand zoos.
So to correct the record, hes taking his pitch to viewers living rooms with the new eight-episode Animal Planet series The Zoo, premiering Saturday at 10 p.m.
The greatest misconception is we take animals from the wild for exhibits. And we dont, he told The Post during Thursday nights premiere at the Bronx Zoo. The vast majority of animals that you see in zoos are bred in zoos. The goal is to make sure we have sustainable, genetically healthy species for the future.
My biggest goal with this series is to show people that zoos and aquariums are really relevant in the 21st century, he adds. Its not enough just to exhibit the animals. There has to be a higher purpose and, for us, thats conservation of species in the wild.
The zoo gave the camera crew unrestricted access to their 265-acre campus of more than 6,000 animals for eight months, to film the behind-the-scenes stories of the creatures and the staffers that care for them. The only rule was that the embedded camera crews couldnt interfere with the animals daily schedules. If it was time for an animal to go out on exhibit, they did, whether we got the shot or not, says Lisa Lucas, executive producer for Animal Planet. The crew had to get clever, had to show up very early in the morning; cameras had to placed in enclosures sometimes for weeks for them to get the shots that they wanted.
Youre trying to shoot a scene, and the entire time the animals face is so close to the lens that his breath is clouding the lens. That makes it a challenge.
These animals are not accustomed to strangers, theyre certainly not accustomed to cameras or crews, and sometimes it made work a little tougher, she adds. The cheetahs, for example, were absolutely fascinated with the camera and with the mics. Youre trying to shoot a scene, and the entire time the animals face is so close to the lens that his breath is clouding the lens. That makes it a challenge.
Saturdays premiere features a Silverback gorilla named Ntondo who is diagnosed with glaucoma, two Malayan tiger cubs raised by human keepers and a zookeeper methodically orchestrating two endangered maleo birds to produce a chick. Future episodes will include stories about the Bronx and Toledo Zoos working to prevent the extinction of the Kihansi spray toad and the rescue of an orphaned snow leopard cub in Pakistan.
All the species that we exhibit here relate to projects that WCS [Wildlife Conservation Society] is doing in the field, Breheny says.
Theyre here because we need to tell the story of the plight that these animals are facing in the wild. Hopefully we get people to support our conservation efforts.
The Zoo 10 p.m. Saturday on Animal Planet