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Listening to the Animals

The public airwaves too often serve only private financial interests. So how refreshing when a local station generates stunning home-grown television in addition to profits.

That’s what Seattle’s KOMO-TV did on several occasions in 1996.

Its trio of “Earth Agenda” documentaries--each celebrating and reporting concerns about wildlife from the Pacific Northwest--this week won a Peabody Award, one of the most coveted honors in broadcasting. And in Los Angeles Saturday night, KOMO will receive a Genesis Award from the Ark Trust, a prominent animal rights group here.

The praise is earned. Produced by Sharon Howard, these programs were so breathtaking in scope and execution for a local station that you would swear they came from one of the major networks.

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“River of Bears” was an hour about the grizzly, of which only 800 are said to survive in the western United States, said to have peaked at 50,000 to 100,100 in 1800. “Return of the Eagle” was about the bald eagle, whose numbers also have dwindled perilously. And “Lolita: Spirit in the Water” had a “Free Willy” vitality, detailing a push to liberate a whale named Lolita from the Seaquarium in Miami, where she performs two shows daily and has lived in isolation since being captured in Puget Sound in 1970 and separated from her family when she was 6.

Striking to look at and deeply imbued with the region that bore them, these programs affirm what a big-market local station can do if it has the vision and the will to focus on substance and aim its resources at projects that have great meaning.

In doing just that with “Earth Agenda,” KOMO has also exhibited a sensitivity about animals that is unusual for TV anywhere, especially animals like Lolita, whose existence in the service of humans is apt to be routinely accepted and taken for granted, as if these creatures were born in a trunk. In other words, lights, sawdust, big top.

Animals as entertainers.

Much more typical was a story about a circus elephant on KABC-TV Channel 7’s “Eyewitness News” last summer. It was one of those routine, gratingly cutesy features, one ending with the reporter climbing upon the elephant’s tusks and then feigning terror as the massive animal lifted her, seemingly on command from a trainer.

The reporter-in-peril-from-an-animal stunt was not only a cliche that had been a staple of local TV news for years when promoting circuses in town, but also one as demeaning to the reporter as to the elephant designated as her co-star. The difference being that she had a choice, it didn’t.

Also striking was the imbalance. “What’s to balance?” you may ask. Elephants and other animals perform, kids and other circus patrons like them, end of story.

Not quite, for there is a body of opinion vigorously opposed to subjugating such dignified but dangerous animals in this way--a view as deserving of airing as the more traditional one. Also omitted was a mention of the number of incidents in which “entertainer” elephants have attacked their handlers and gone on rampages that ended tragically. Presumably, this did not happen because the elephants were happy and serene in captivity.

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All of which returns us to the present and a story this week on CNN, also showing just one side. The creator was Jeanne Moos, CNN’s clever, inventive, New York-based humor reporter, who not only tries to be funny but, as a bonus, generally is. Except that her topic this time was the newest star at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus appearing in New York.

A hippo.

She was Zusha, Moos said, the first performing hippo in the United States. And, you hope, the last.

“No, she doesn’t sit up on a disco ball like the tiger,” Moos reported. “And no, she can’t come close to doing a handstand like the sea lion. And she can’t compete with the elephants when it comes to math.”

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But popular? Kids interviewed for the story loved the hippo’s drool, loved her spit, loved everything about her, even though, Moos reported, the hippo “doesn’t do much acting. The baboons riding on Zusha’s back do most of the work, though she does walk up and down a flight of stairs.”

Cut to the hippo slowly lumbering down stairs with a baboon on her back.

She doesn’t wear “a tutu . . . like you’d see in animation,” someone noted.

Cut to a clip from the classic Disney movie “Fantasia,” showing an animated hippo in a short skirt. “Don’t let the dancing hippo in the movie . . . fool you,” Moos said. “Real hippos have enough trouble just walking on the ring curb.” You could imagine, while watching the hippo being led on a leash by a baboon across the ring curb.

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Zusha’s handlers, Moos reported, “say hippos are far harder to train than elephants.” You could imagine that, too. How do you get a hippo to do these things? Why on earth would you?

Moos said the hippo’s Russian-speaking trainer got her from a Quebec zoo when she was 1, and that now, at age 14, she’s a marketing phenomenon, with the circus doing a booming business in Zusha snow-cone mugs and stuffed toy Zushas that Moos compared with the globe’s most renowned purple dinosaur, Barney.

Cut to a clip of Barney.

Very witty. Except that unlike the circus hippo, Barney isn’t a real animal.

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Another difference is that the hippo is out of water only when performing and eating, Moos reported, then added, almost as a flippant throwaway, that the animal “spends the rest of her time in a pool backstage, which we weren’t allowed to shoot.”

Huh? That was the story to investigate, not the extent of hippo drool. Didn’t Zusha like TV crews watching her in water? Or was there something about the pool that the circus or trainer wanted to hide and keep off TV? Too small? Too something else?

While your imagination worked on the answers to the question that Moos never bothered to ask on camera, she was on to more frivolity, topped by a rousing finale that had her using a rag to wipe the inside--yes, the inside--of the hippo’s open mouth. The mouth of a very dangerous animal whose enormous, tusk-like canine teeth can bite through everything short of a Sherman tank.

No, this wasn’t cuddly Disney, for suddenly the hippo responded by coming down hard on the rag as the frightened Moos just barely was able to yank away her hand without being injured.

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“It wasn’t until later,” Moos said in a voice-over, “that we heard about the hippo’s powerful jaws.” Oh, c’mon. No one had told her? She didn’t know? That was like not knowing a boa constrictor constricts.

Not to worry, though, for the end result was entertainment, with the circus deploying its newest animal performer on behalf of fun, and Moos making the hippo and her own blundering near-catastrophe the punch line of a joke.

But remember, kids, don’t try this at home. Not unless your hippo is wearing a tutu.


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