As reality TV series go, Nat Geo WILD's Secrets of the Zoo is a bit different. Whereas many reality series are filled with craven, opportunistic predators — animals, basically —competing for a rose, or money, or 15 minutes of fame, this series is filled with animals of a different kind. The sort the audience is intended to care deeply about. And as it enters into its second season, continuing to follow the members of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium — one of the largest zoos in the U.S. — the series finds plenty of opportunities to engage its audience with actual life-and-death scenarios unfolding every day at the sprawling facility.
The series presents a surprisingly unflinching look the day-to-day challenges that the staff, doctors, and caretakers are met with, due in part to the fact that the facility houses and cares over 10,000 animals across 12,000 acres. According to the series, that mean over 6,000 veterinary cases every year, with only a small percentage being births. The sheer size of the undertaking is impressive on its own, especially the amount of work that goes into conservation efforts. As the season 2 premiere notes, The Wilds (the park’s dedicated conservation preserve) is home to scimitar horned oryx, which are extinct in the wild, and the Wilds is actively breeding the animal with the express purpose of helping repopulate it back in its natural habitat in Africa.
That sort of conservational effort is key to what makes Secrets of the Zoo more than a chance to see cute animals up close. But, having to appeal to a wide audience, there’s plenty of that, too. The first part of the second season focuses primarily on four distinct storylines, each one involving the plight of a different animal. While it can be challenging for sensitive viewers to see animals in peril, the series’ appeal is in its dedication to the efforts put forth by the zoo’s medical and care-taking staff to ensure all of its creatures are happy and well cared for. As such, the season begins with a look at an eight-year-old arctic fox with sinus problems, a very chill monkey who is having difficulties following bladder surgery, the aforementioned scimitar horned oryx’s, and a trio of cheetah cubs who were rejected by their mother.
In its efforts to be as authentic as possible, Secrets of the Zoo can sometimes deliver footage that will make viewers cringe, like when the arctic fox has to undergo surgery to remove a fungus in her sinus cavity that’s eating away at her nasal passage. Regardless the potential of turning off viewers with its footage, the series always manages to underline what’s happening with a very human response, typically from the zoo’s staff and certainly its veterinarians. Interspersed with the usual fly-on-the-wall footage and narration are various talking-head interviews with employees at the zoo. What’s memorable is the degree to which these doctors and caretakers have bonded with the animals in question, and how the animals respond in kind. The degree to which the show’s participants openly care about the animals’ wellbeing raises the stakes considerably, so when one of the creatures dies during a procedure that was intended to stave off a potentially life-threatening infection, the tone among the crew (both the show and the zoo), in particular Dr. Priya Bapodra becomes understandably somber.
But as necessary as it is to show how the unexpected can happen and take an unfortunate turn, the series makes sure to balance that out with the sort of uplifting story of survival that most viewers would expect from a series such as this. At the season’s beginning that’s no more evident than in the obsessive attention applied to the trio of newborn cheetah cubs (named Bob, Frances, and Debbie), who’re so young when they’re brought into the facility, they haven’t even opened their eyes, yet. At that point, the series focuses intently on Suzi Rapp, vice president of animal programs at the zoo, as she and her daughter begin to care for the infant cheetahs and work to make their stay at the zoo a healthy one. It’s here that the show capitalizes on the understanding that animals are cute, baby animals are cuter, and dogs interacting with baby animals will make your heart explode.
Maintaining that balance is central to making the series work, as too much of one would seriously undercut the other. To the show’s credit, it manages to keep both sides on an even keel, leaning more into the upbeat and optimistic than the other (thankfully), all while providing and unprecedented glimpse into the inner workings of one of the biggest and busiest zoos in the U.S.
Secrets of the Zoo airs Sunday nights @9pm on Nat Geo WILD.