LOS ANGELESCable network Animal Planet announced its most ambitious foray into reality-TV programming yet Monday with The Zoo, a weekly, hourlong show in which members of a diverse, all-animal cast square off in a single 3,200-square-foot home in the San Fernando Valley.
"Sparksand furare sure to fly when animals from 11 different ecosystems share a single row house in trendy Echo Park," executive producer Stu Wolchek said. "For many of these wild, colorful, and totally unpredictable cast members, it's the first time they've ever seen a bison or sloth."
Wolchek added: "Some of these guys have never even lived under a roof."
According to the show's creator, former zoo director Loren De Jong, over 80 different species were auditioned to find the right mix of personalities. In addition to the red bear, African cheetah, hawk, and antelope, the house is occupied by an American bison, a field mouse, an Egyptian plover, a three-toed sloth, a goose, a crocodile, and a female lowland gorilla who is "very territorial of the bathroom."
De Jong said the show's contestants begin forming alliances on the first day.
"We see an immediate alliance develop between the lowland gorilla and the bison, who work together to smash a hole through a wall," De Jong said.
"While the bear and crocodile are the first to assert themselves in the house, folks at home shouldn't forget the dark horse: the field mouse, who might just fly under the radar all the way to the finals," she added.
TV Guide writer Rebecca Kohler is one of the few to have viewed the pilot.
"It's impossible to pick a winner this early on," Kohler said. "The gorilla is clearly the game's strategist. At the same time, nothing happens in the house that the hawk doesn't see. And I wouldn't put it past the crocodile to eat his own young if it meant getting ahead." Kohler said that the animal most likely to face early eviction is the sloth, who "seems to lack the ambition necessary to go all the way."
The cast will compete in weekly immunity and reward challenges, with prizes comprising such creature comforts as straw, mud puddles, and tree trunks. The latter is much-desired for itch-relieving, horn-sharpening, and territory-marking alike.
Animal Planet sources say the house, which is equipped with the latest in modern convenience, including a hot tub, a flat-screen TV, and a pool table, quickly fills with feces during the premiere episode.
The cast will also take "time outs" in the house's soundproof confessional room, where they can "privately come clean with any thoughts or instincts they may have."
"You'll be shocked at some of the venting you'll hear in the confessional," Wolchek said.
While the cast has reportedly had trouble with such competitions as bridge-building and cooperative puzzle-solving, repulsive-food competitions have proven "very successful," with contestants eagerly devouring worms, beetles, and grubs.
"The hawk beat out his fellow housemates in a stomach-turning roundworm-eating contest," Wolchek said. "He just swallowed those disgusting things whole, one by one. It all seemed worth it to him in the end, though, when he was awarded a sorely needed pile of branches to complete his nest."
Sources close to the show have hinted at the possibility of a 12th, surprise houseguest being thrown into the already cramped living quarters to "shake things up" during February sweeps. Unconfirmed rumors circulating on the Internet identify the mystery cast-member as a 23-year-old Asian-American marketing assistant.
The winner of The Zoo will be awarded a hefty cash prize, a Range Rover, his or her choice of permanent habitat, and, if applicable, assisted migration courtesy of Continental Airlines.
That is, of course, if the show manages to carry on to its conclusion.
Originally set to premiere in September, The Zoo was delayed after the original camera crew was forced to flee. Reports of production problems have continued to surface since, including smashed cameras, urine-soaked sound equipment, and a boom-microphone windscreen that was stolen and raised as young.