In a world where many people are working from home, staring at computer screens for hours on end and having little connection with nature, I find it immensely comforting and inspiring that programs like Planet Earth and My Octopus Teacher have enjoyed such widespread viewership. It shows that people still have an innate fascination with the majesty of the natural world and are still interested in learning about the incredible creatures that populate our planet. As a ‘90s baby myself, I would have to attribute a great deal of the responsibility for this fascination to one children’s program in particular: Zoboomafoo.
While Zoboomafoo aired for only two years and had only two seasons, the impact that it had on its viewers was immense. Ask anyone who was sitting in front of a television set around the turn of the 21st century and they’ll surely remember the name Zoboomafoo as well as the lemur puppet who played a starring role. This show piqued our interests in the animal kingdom and the many exotic animals that exist outside of North America. Indeed, the first time I ever learned about a capybara was from watching Zoboomafoo, and I’d expect that many people around my age have had similar experiences.
No, we didn’t all grow up to be field biologists, and many of us surely have never seen a tiger outside of captivity, but Zoboomafoo gave us all an appreciation for animal species that we may have never come in contact with if it weren’t for this program. The kid-friendly, whimsical way that the show was presented made it easy to want to learn more about emus and kangaroos and jaguars and all of the other stunning animals that appeared in Animal Junction.
Zoboomafoo first took to the air on January 25, 1999, and lasted until its final episode aired on June 7, 2001. While the show only had two seasons and 65 total episodes that originally aired on PBS Kids, the reruns of the show were regularly shown on Sprout (which is currently known as Universal Kids) until 2011. While this show was the creation of two brothers that grew up in New Jersey, the show aired all over the world in countries such as Canada, Brazil, Serbia, Montenegro, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Australia, India, and many others.
Much of Zoboomafoo was filmed on location at the Duke Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina (as one of the show’s hosts Martin Kratt was a graduate of Duke University). The show received an Emmy for Outstanding Directing in a Children’s Series in 2001 and also received a Parents’ Choice Award that same year.
The Crazy Kratt Brothers
As an animal-loving child, I couldn’t imagine a better job than the positions held by the Kratt brothers as co-hosts of Zaboomafoo. They got to spend their days around exotic animals, feeding tigers and cuddling with koalas, and say that their best friend was a talking lemur.
Martin and Chris Kratt were born four years apart, with Martin being the older of the two, and both grew up in Warren Township, New Jersey. Both attended Watchung Hills Regional High School and have since been inducted into the school’s hall of fame for their success in television. After high school, Martin went on to get a Bachelor of Science in zoology from Duke University and Chris received a Bachelor of Arts in biology from Carleton College.
Before becoming a television star teaching kids about animals, Chris Kratt did serious scientific work in the fields of biology and ecology. After working as an intern at Conservation International in 1990, he went on to found the Carleton Organization for Biodiversity, an organization that received funding from the Explorers Club and the National Science Foundation. Chris Kratt also received the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, an award that allows graduating college students to conduct research outside of the United States.
The Kratt brothers made their television debut during the summer of 1996 on the short-lived program Kratts’ Creatures, which also originally aired on PBS Kids. The show began and ended during the summer of ‘96, airing 50 episodes during that time and replacing Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? (another absolute classic) in the schedule. Due to the fact that Kratts’ Creatures enjoyed solid popularity during its short time, the Kratt brothers were given an unofficial spin-off show called Zoboomafoo. However, they couldn’t have done it alone.
Our Lovable Lemur Host
The name of the show was derived from the lemur who played a central role as the show’s third host named Zoboo. Zoboo was portrayed both by a real lemur named Jovian as well as by a Canadian-born puppeteer named Gord Robertson. It’s pretty easy to figure out when Zoboo is being portrayed by a real lemur or a puppet since real lemurs typically don’t speak human languages.
An episode typically began with Zoboo coming up to the window of Animal Junction and refusing to speak to Chris or Martin Kratt unless he’s given a snack. One of the Kratt brothers will then offer Zoboo one of his favorite foods, which include garbanzo beans, mango slices, and pieces of sweet potato, at which point he’ll burp, spin around on a turntable, and shout, “Zoboomafoo!” No, they did not put the real lemur on the turntable; that was a puppet. Zoboo will then lead into the show’s theme by describing the characteristics of a mystery animal and asking the Kratt brothers to guess what animal it is.
In order to find a lemur that they could cast as the third host of Zoboomafoo, the Kratt brothers went back to Martin’s alma mater of Duke University and inquired at the Duke Lemur Center, where Martin had previously volunteered. Eventually, the brothers decided on Jovian, a Coquerel’s sifaka lemur that was only around three years old when they first started filming for the show. To prepare for the opening sequences of Zoboomafoo, Martin and Chris Kratt filmed Jovian and his parents, Nigel and Flavia, jumping around an outdoor cage that was modeled after the Animal Junction set.
In 2014, Jovian passed away from kidney failure at the age of 20 years old. During his life, Jovian became somewhat of a star, drawing around 15,000 people to see him at Duke Lemur Center every year. When the news of his passing reached the internet, fans of Zoboomafoo came out in droves to mourn the lovable lemur. Rest in peace, Jovian.
Zobooland and Fantasy Elements
In addition to providing viewers with real, valuable information about actual animals from around the world, in order to keep us kids with attention deficits consistently engaged, every episode would include at least one anecdote from Zobooland, Zoboo’s fictional home created in claymation fantasy style.
Zobooland included fantasy creatures that typically resembled real animals in some way, such as Slimantha who resembled a salamander and Narchi who resembled an anteater. I remember always eagerly anticipating the Zobooland portion of the show, and I think it helped stimulate creativity and imagination in young minds.
Overall, Zoboomafoo was always a half-hour of pure joy, and I’d always come away with a few fun facts about animals and a renewed zeal toward the natural world. Today, while I don’t work as a wildlife photographer or a herpetologist, I’m still fascinated with animals and the environment, and I think I may have Zoboomafoo to partially thank for that.