Alibi V.14 No.27 • July 7-13, 2005 

Idiot Box

Humans Bad, Animals Good

“Ultimate Zoo” on Animal Planet

As my distaste for “reality television” grows greater, I find it harder and harder to watch real human beings engaged in actual human activities. After a while, even a documentary about World War II starts to look like a black and white version of “Big Brother”: We put Adolph Hitler, Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler and sexy Eva Braun in a bunker for one month. What happens when they stop acting polite and start being real.

As shows like “Wife Swap” and “The Bachelor” have made me all but give up on humanity, I'm finding myself more and more interested in the lives of our less evolved brethren. Since people--be they playing poker, fighting with their roommate, redecorating their living room or eating a blender full of maggots--no longer hold my interest, animals have become suddenly fascinating. I won't go so far as to say that I can watch more than 10 minutes of “America's Funniest Animals,” but I will say that the hours I've spent with my television dial parked on Animal Planet has increased dramatically.

While watching D-list celebrities scream at each other on “The Surreal Life” now bores me to death, I seem to be able to watch Tasmanian devils howling and screeching at one another for hours on end. Go figure.

While hiding out on Animal Planet, I recently discovered one of my favorite new shows: “Ultimate Zoo.” The show basically travels around the world digging up the most impressive, most expensive animal exhibits and showing us what went into building them.

While the premise sounds a tad dry, the show is purely addictive. You see, zoos are cool. You forget that shortly after your fifth grade teacher stops dragging you to them on field trips. Sure, watching a tiger sleeping in some tiny cage loses its appeal fairly quickly. But modern-day zoos have to compete with War of the Worlds and Xbox. The zoos of today are dumping millions of dollars into immersive animal encounter experiences. There's the globe-spanning collection of desert habitats housed under a gigantic geodesic dome (in Omaha of all places). There's the world's largest exhibit of nocturnal animals, buried underground at a cost of $31 million. There's the extensive African savanna recreated in--believe it or not--chilly Canada.

Gone are the tiny cages and boring plaques of yesterday's zoos. Today's zoos are high tech facilities with realistic habitats and interactive exhibits. Watching zoo architects (my new career of envy, by the way) put these $10, $20, $30 million exhibits together is pretty amazing. Air conditioners are transformed into fake trees, bars are replaced with near invisible netting and unintrusive barriers like moats and rivers are the word of the day. Whole snowcapped Asian peaks can now be recreated in the suburbs of Nashville.

“Ultimate Zoo” makes me want to quit my job and travel around the world taking in these amazing exhibits. Or at least sit at home staring goon-eyed at all the cute animals. ... After all, who needs humans when you've got penguins?

“Ultimate Zoo” airs every Friday night at 6 p.m. on Animal Planet.