I knew working on this show was starting to have an effect on me when travelling home in a taxi one night, the cabbie asked me what I did for a crust… after years of the old standard reply, “I’m a television producer, no I don’t know Russell Crowe, and yes, Alf Stuart really is that nice in real life”, I decided to try a different tact… “I’m a Primate Keeper” I replied. I don’t know who was more surprised, the cabbie, who looked as if a major Rock Star had just buckled up in the backseat of his Ford Fairlane, or me, who once she got started on rattling off the complex political and social structure of chimpanzees, found it hard to stop. Oh, and for the record, chimps aren’t monkeys (monkeys have tails!). I signed my cab docket Lubutu, in honor of the very handsome alpha male of Taronga, wished him luck for the rest of his shift and he wished me luck with ‘my’ chimps. You see, that’s the thing about the zoo, it gets under your skin. And this series has been no exception.
I’ve been lucky enough to have worked on several zoo shows for other networks, but this one takes the cake. From the moment we switched our cameras on all those months ago our aim has not only been to bring to life the vibrant personalities and complex social structures of the animals of Taronga, but most importantly to simply tell it like it is. The stories and events you’ll see here aren’t watered down, things do go wrong. We’ve been allowed to spend days following animals as they make epic journeys across the world; we’ve bunked down overnight with keepers hoping to catch the very first glimpse of a rare birth and we’ve spent anxious hours holding our breath at potentially deadly introductions between dangerous animals.
With this unprecedented access, it’s been a little bit like Big Brother, zoo style. We’ve had GoPro cameras in every corner, remote camera set ups, CCTV, and of course, our ever faithful, incredible cameraman Baz. Now a massive fan of wearing cammo gear to every shoot, he knows what it is to make art out of an elephant mating and although he’s still not quite sold on the sweet pungent smells of a Tassie Devil den, he has now taken to calling tree branches ‘browse’ much to the delight of keepers.
I’ve also been lucky enough to get behind the camera myself for this series. There is some questionable camerawork in there however, but I blame that jumpy shot on Johari the lion who roared at me with all his 170kg of muscle and might when I was up in his den. And to be amongst chimps and their piercing screams as the entire group settled a series of long brewing scores is just plain frightening. This time, I did check my exit strategy before I checked my frame in the viewfinder.
Luckily working behind the lens has seen only a few minor mishaps and near misses along the way, such as sliding down a muddy rock face whilst searching for the teams prized Australian Hobby that had flown off during the bird show and if it wasn’t getting in the freezing waters to film a Green Turtle release that was going to kill me, surely that 100kg pre historic monster heading straight for me could have done it if he wanted to.
Working so close with keepers in these back of house areas required us to get creative in our approach to capturing the action in the most natural way possible so as to not alarm the animals. This would often require me dressing up as a keeper, hiding in some unsuspecting dark corner, in a wheelie bin, or up a tree. You name it, I was happy to do it, especially if I got to wear those keeper greens.
But in all honesty it really is the keepers, vets and vet nurses themselves who make this series what it is, and makes Taronga a world class zoo for that matter. With utter dedication to their animals happiness, health and welfare, their staggering efforts for conservation and their unfailing success at breeding programs it is nothing short of inspiring seeing the keepers, trainers and vet team in their element at work. Having had the privilege to work side by side these incredibly talented and compassionate human beings for months on end has left me in awe and there is no doubt these people and animals will be in my heart and mind for many years.
So what’s the worst part in shooting this doco series? Knowing that it has to end. And for someone who has now become so fixated on these animals, that’s going to be a hard fact to swallow. Yes, it’s a sad but true fact, Frans de Waal’s ‘Chimpanzee Politics’ is my preferred bedtime reading of late. I’ve also just completed my application to volunteer at the zoo, I figure my hours of squeegee work on the windows around the joint holds me in good stead, but the hardest part will actually be for the zoo to get rid of me. Someone better call Dr. Vogelnest because the only way I’m leaving is if I’m darted, anaethised and placed in a crate.