When Zoboomafoo premiered on PBS on January 25, 1999, families instantly fell in love with the high-energy Kratt brothers and the parade of live animals they interacted with during each 30-minute episode. Combining puppetry with real wildlife, its format was as unusual as some of the critters that walked, flew, and slithered across their set, and that’s what drew more eyes to the show.
You and your kids might recognize its hosts from Wild Kratts, a popular PBS series now in its seventh season. That’s the one where animated versions of the bros showcase the abilities of different animals, living a day in the life of that species while preventing bad guys from messing with the world. But, the story of these zoologists begins not with flashy cartoons and super-powered animal costumes, but with a lemur puppet and his penchant for snacks.
Me, and You, and Zoboomafoo
After graduating from college, Martin Kratt and his younger brother Chris traveled the world together making low-budget documentaries about animals for children. The handheld footage from these adventures became the basis of their first PBS show, Kratts’ Creatures. Aimed at preschoolers, the brothers espoused the uncanny abilities of the animal kingdom in a style that spoke to their young demographic.
Kids loved Kratts’ Creatures, and its success led the pair to a spin-off titled Zoboomafoo. Instead of sojourning across the globe, this studio show took place in a fictional reserve called “Animal Junction.” The brothers enthusiastically taught viewers about different animals with help from their co-host, a lemur who was the show's namesake. Whenever Zoboomafoo (Zoboo for short) had a snack, he burped and transformed into a speaking puppet who interacted with the Kratts and the episode’s special creature guests. A nature show for children like this was an untested and highly ambitious project, one that few believed would be popular, let alone become a reality.
“A few production managers… during the planning phase quit because they didn’t think it could be done,” Chris said in an interview with Variety in 2021. “We had this puppet lemur that was going to sometimes be the real lemur and we were going to cut back and forth between them … It freaked out a lot of seasoned television professionals.”
Undeterred, the Kratts made their risky vision come true, introducing home audiences to exotic creatures like the binturong or Kinkajous, creepy crawlers like tarantulas, beautiful birds like the kookaburra, and predators like wolves and tigers, assisted by the wise-cracking and curious lemur. There was even an episode about humans and what made them special within the animal kingdom. Whatever they were doing, it was working, as the ratings were phenomenal. It proved a hit among kids and adults, as analytics revealed high co-viewing numbers with families watching together.
The constant flow of animals on set meant production schedules were beholden to the critters, and not the humans filming them. The staff let the wild guests do their thing and kept the cameras rolling. It helped that the animals were usually babies, which typically made them easier to keep from getting into more serious mischief – even if that wasn’t always the case.
Will the real Zoboo please stand up?
Chris and Martin have been the face of kids’ wildlife shows for over two decades, but if you ask them who was the true star of Zoboomofoo, they’d answer it was the lemur. Two lemurs to be precise- one real and one hand-made - but both important to the show's success.
Gord Robertson was the voice and puppeteer for Zoboo, an experienced performer who worked on Jim Henson productions leading up to his time on the PBS Kids show. Robertson called it fun but “challenging,” often performing flat on his back on a concrete floor covered in mulch instead of the typical raised set he was used to. One thing that took some adjusting was working with the unpredictability of wild animals. Robertson was gassed by baby skunks, crushed by an elephant, and nearly mauled by a cougar (the same one seen in the opening credits), but the most harrowing misadventure nearly endangered the safety of more than just the staff on set.
“They had this bear who might have been a retired circus bear but he was a little skittish, and a bear is a bear- retired or not,” Robertson recalled in an interview from 2021. “I'm standing backstage [after they cleared the set of bystanders] and the lighting director is lying on a sofa looking at a monitor to watch the scene. We see the bear enter the shot, stand up, drop, turn, and run, and then he’s out of shot. All we hear is the clack-clack-clack of his claws running on the pavement!”
After being warned by the animal wrangler to remain still, the bear sprinted past Robertson and towards freedom through an air conditioner vent. “He crushes the vent and then gets out of the building. Just as he does that, the trainer comes around the corner and says, ‘Where's the bear?’ I look at him and say ‘Outside.’ He says ‘Outside where? I say ‘Outside!’”
This could have been disastrous, as the studio was in the middle of a highly-populated suburban area in Toronto, Canada. Luckily, the bear didn’t wander far and was quickly discovered back at his trailer. Production continued, likely with very few bathroom breaks needed by the human staff.
Caitlin O’Reilly, who helped build and wrangle puppet Zoboo, remembered the odd tasks she did to keep the faux lemur safe on the wildlife show, including “washing off camel spit, making sure the ostrich didn't poke at the puppet's shiny eyes, and ensuring the brave puppeteer didn't have spiders falling on to him while stuck in a barrel with his arm through a hole.”
Who was Zoboomafoo the animal?
When he wasn’t a puppet, Zoboo was a real animal who enjoyed his time in the spotlight. Jovian, a five-year-old Coquerel’s sifaka lemur, loved leaping all over that set and hanging out with the Kratts. He grew up in the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina, a sanctuary for these rare and endangered animals that Martin volunteered at while attending Duke University as a zoology student.
From his soft creamy-white fur to his expressive face and bright eyes, it was impossible not to fall in love with Jovian. The young lemur was mesmerizing to watch, whether gracefully jumping across the room, climbing a ladder with his long tail following behind, or noisily chomping on a banana. "He'd jump in through the window and we'd feed him mangoes or garbanzo beans,” Martin recalled in an interview from 2014. “Sometimes he'd grab our noses with those soft sifaka hands."
A second identical “Animal Junction” set was built in North Carolina to record the lemur scenes without moving them far from their habitat. Jovian, along with parents Nigel and Flavia, pranced and leaped on this set, using that footage for Zoboo throughout the series. Nigel and Flavia showed up simultaneously with their offspring during the episode “Happy Lemur Day,” an episode all about lemurs that celebrated Zoboo’s birthday, with his parents appearing alongside their famous ring-tailed son.
While Zoboomafoo only lasted 65 episodes across two seasons, its presence helped elevate the Kratt brothers into the premier hosts for kids’ nature shows. Today, Wild Kratts is one of the most popular cartoons on PBS, and a lucrative one as well with toys, books, and other products helping this show maintain its boa-constrictor grip on children’s entertainment.
A Zoboomafoo reboot was announced in early 2020, but there have been zero updates four years later. While it’s been two decades since Zoboomafoo left the airwaves, there are still ways to watch it online or on physical media. It’s worth introducing it to your wild animals, especially if it makes them leap like a lemur to learn more about the wonders of nature.