The prolific zoologist and nature show host talks about the rare-wildlife-filled new season of his and brother Chris’ long-running, Peabody Award-nominated 2D animated nature show that premieres May 22 on PBS Kids.
Zoologists, actors, producers, directors, and educational nature show hosts Chris and Martin Kratt have produced five TV series, founded The Kratt Brothers Creature Hero Foundation, and established traveling museum exhibits and stage shows, all in an effort to nurture kids’ interest in the wild creatures that inhabit this equally wild world. The brothers are now most widely known for their portrayal as the super-powered, 2D-animated versions of themselves in their Peabody Award-nominated series Wild Kratts, and Martin admits he and Chris anxiously await the release of their show’s seventh season.
Perhaps, even more than the show’s fans.
“It’s our longest-running series by far and I think it has the broadest reach of any of our shows,” says Martin of the series, which airs in 32 countries and features cartooned Kratt brothers with their fictional team of gifted scientists as they explore very real but rarely seen realms of the creature world. The newest season airs on PBS Kids starting Monday, May 22.
Martin continues, “The kids we were making Kratts’ Creatures and Zaboomafoo for, it's their kids who are watching Wild Kratts. This all started because we wanted to introduce kids to amazing animals and, hopefully, through that, inspire them to help save endangered species when they grow up.’ We’ve kept that spirit going through all our shows, but in Wild Kratts we can take it to a new level. We can go anywhere because of animation, into any environment, and it’s allowed us to take this series further than we ever could with our previous shows.”
Before taking over PBS Kids’ wildlife programming - and even prior to their official careers as zoologists - the Kratt brothers began their journey to create pioneering animal education and awareness for children as one might expect… with lemurs.
“Lemurs have been such a through-line for us,” says Martin. “When I was in college at Duke, my work-study job as a student was feeding lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center. And the first aye-aye lemur that was born in captivity, Blue Devil, I got to take care of him. He would hang on my arm and tap on my watch. It was awesome. Then, Chris and I went with our professor Dr. Pat Wright to Madagascar. We lived there for a year, learned the local language of Malagasy, and filmed while trying to come up with a pilot for a show, which ultimately became Kratts’ Creatures.”
After filming the 50-episode, world-adventuring, PBS Kids television show that, after releasing in 1996, became the first wildlife show aimed specifically toward children, the Kratt brothers were approached by PBS Kids once again. But, this time, they were tasked to come up with a preschool series that became the beloved, world-famous series Zaboomafoo. Starring the character Zaboo as both a live-action lemur - whose scenes were filmed back at Duke’s Primate Center - and as a lemur puppet, Martin and Chris spent three years filming Zaboomafoo, introducing audiences to a variety of species within the haven of Animal Junction, but all the while realizing the limitations of live-action vs animation.
“Even after spending all that time with lemurs, there was still stuff that we could only show with animation,” notes Martin. “With our show after Zaboomafoo, Be the Creature, we’d go and live with the creatures in the wild. We joined a pack of African wild dogs in Botswana, lived with Chimpanzees in Uganda, went wherever these animals went for years and, in all that time, we learned, no matter how long we stayed out there, there are some things you just can’t see or film. Wild Kratts has allowed us to share really cool and rare information about certain animals, like lemurs. In Season 3, I think we have about six episodes dedicated to Madagascar.”
The animation in Wild Kratts is inspired by the minimalist stylings of American nature illustrator Charlie Harper. The series doesn’t just introduce kids to different animals around the world like in Zaboomafoo or Kratts’ Creatures. A bit like The Magic School Bus, the show puts viewers into the shoes, figuratively, of each animal via cartoon Martin and Chris’ “Creature Power” suits that allow them to adopt the abilities of any animal.
“One of our early episodes was about walruses and how they float around in storms with these built-in life preservers inside their throats,” shares Martin. “They can just sleep and float in the most insane storm. How are you going to film that? You really can’t. But we can show it in animation.”
Animated storytelling has always been part of Martin and Chris’ TV programming; their first foray into the medium was a 2D, anthropomorphic, imaginary dinosaur named Ttark who made evolutionary comments on the different topics addressed in Kratts’ Creatures. The Kratt brothers also introduced multiple segments of Claymation into each episode of Zaboomafoo during Zaboo’s stories about his experiences in the fantastical world of Zabooland.
But the animation has always been a complementary or side element in these shows, which were already breaking new ground.
“Kids like animals more than any other age group but, at that time, nobody was making any wildlife shows just for kids,” remembers Martin. “There were documentaries for a general audience, but there was no kids' wildlife show in the late 80s.”
They were the first to create animal-centered programming for kids and, four years after the final episode of Be the Creature, Chris and Martin Kratt created Wild Kratts. The show is the first series that’s attempted to animate animals like a lowland streaked tenrec, pygmy rabbit, yeti crab, vampire squid, Amazon river dolphin, and more.
“We get into some pretty bizarre, obscure animals,” says Martin. “I think for all of us, it's been a learning experience. We try to point out things to the animators, like what makes a slow loris a slow loris, the important features, and the important ways it moves. We're dealing with very bizarre birds, like vangas from Madagascar, which fly a certain way and flap their wings in a certain way. Or the fusa, which also only comes from Madagascar. There are so many animals all over the world that we're animating for the first time. But we have a great animation director, Louis Champaign, who is as focused as we are on getting these animals represented right.”
In addition to a dedicated animation crew, Wild Kratts also relies on a team of researchers who contact scientists specializing in studies on certain animals and request assistance on the scripts, creature designs, and insight into wow-factor facts.
“There's so much that people know about animals that hasn't been published yet,” notes Martin. “So, we can find things that aren't even in books yet and put them in the show by talking directly to these scientists. One thing about the format for this show and the subject matter is we'll never run out of stories. There's so much to do still, and so many animals left to write about. This season we’ll be breaking the 200th episode and we’ve only scratched the surface.”
For all the exotic creatures featured in Wild Kratts, some of the most fascinating adventures have to do with the most common animals about which people may think they know everything there is to know.
“One thing we realized, as we were planning the pigeon episode is we’ve never seen a baby pigeon, or seen one eating,” says Martin. “You don't see them on the city streets eating pizza crust, so where are they? Through research, we found out that pigeons, from their esophagus, express a milk that they spit into the baby pigeon’s mouth, and the baby pigeons have straw-like beaks when they are young that they use to drink this milk. So that’s something we showed on the show that Chris and I never knew before we started working on the script.”
The first four episodes of the newest season also feature more common animals, such as red foxes in the episode “Outfoxed” (airing May 22), ravens in “Clever the Raven” (May 23)
mountain goats and big-horned sheep in “Race to Goat Mountain” (May 24) and numerous owl species in the “Owl Odyssey” (May 25). Still, what would a monumental seventh season be without a bit of mysterious animal flare? And, of course, the occasional lemur?
“A big special we’ve got coming up in Season 7 is called “Blue and Green: The Living Earth,” which is all about habitats and climate and it features blue whales,” says Martin. “It also has another lemur in there, the Indri, which is the largest living lemur. Truthfully, whenever I research or write an episode, I feel like a kid myself. It’s so much fun and I'm amazed by some of the things I learn.”
But, for Martin, the biggest reward comes from seeing how much kids get into the show’s material, their appetite for learning, and empowering them to be teachers for their own parents.
“They could become the scientists who answer some of the questions we didn't know,” says Martin. “Our professor Dr. Pat Wright, who we spent that year in Madagascar with, discovered a new species of lemur, the golden bamboo lemur, in 1986 and she’d also rediscovered the greater bamboo lemur, which was previously thought to be extinct. There are a lot of unknown things and new things to discover in nature and science. That's what Wild Kratts is all about.”
Wild Kratt’s live stage shows with Chris and Martin are also back in session and will commence touring nationwide starting in September. For full details, visit https://www.wildkratts.com/.