“Secrets of the Zoo”

National Geographic Wild personalizes NC Zoo in TV series

By Jodi Werner Greenwald | Photos courtesy of NC Zoo

Posted on December 15, 2020

As temperatures dip and Ballantynians look for safe, outdoor adventures, a wild experience is only 1.5 hours away in Asheboro, North Carolina.

The North Carolina Zoo is the largest natural habitat zoo in the world. It has 1,800-plus animals across 2,600 acres of land. Zoogeographical, the Zoo distributes the animals around continents. There are North America and Africa, and the Zoo has plans to add Asia and Australia.

National Geographic Wild filmed its “Secrets of the Zoo: North Carolina” at NC Zoo, which premiered this fall. The eight-part series documents the daily life of the animals and staff. For the starstuck experience: Watch the series ahead of time and then head to NC Zoo to meet the stars in person.

One of them, Robert Burris, you might meet at the front gate. He is the Zoo’s admissions supervisor, and you will recognize his voice from his being the show’s narrator and tram guide. It was Robert’s childhood dream to work at NC Zoo, and while it took him 40 years to get there — first serving in the military and managing stores — he has become its biggest champion. He and his wife, Kim, even got married at the Zoo in August of 2012.

See below for more secrets from the Zoo.

  • A state-supported zoo, NC Zoo is one of the top tourist attractions in North Carolina. It opened in stages starting in 1974 in the center of the state in Randolph County, which is called “the Heart of North Carolina.”
  • Robert Burris likes sharing fun facts. He told us that the entire Zoo Atlanta would fit into the rhino habitat at NC Zoo without touching the fence. He also mentioned that National Geographic Wild filmed at the Zoo on and off for a year, starting in October 2019.
  • The Indigo snakes seen courting each other on the show have since had several hatchlings. Its been a very successful breeding program for the Zoo. You can see them in the swamp. A kid-favorite attraction in the swamp is the secret doors and rocks used to care for and feed the snakes and fish.
  • Polar bears Nikita and Anana might become parents next year, but we won’t know if Anana is pregnant until she emerges from her den. The keepers monitor her hormones (by checking her poop!), but female polar bears have pseudopregnancy and gain weight while denning, so pregnancy can be inconclusive. This breeding cycle is the fifth for the duo, and no cubs for them yet. Nikita is 14 years old (and 1,200 pounds), Anana is 22 years old. The oldest known polar bear at a zoo lived to be 34.
  • Tomo, the grizzly bear, came to NC Zoo from Yellowstone National Park, where he was considered a “nuisance bear.” He’s older now and sleeps a lot. During the summer you can find him under the waterfall. He stands about six feet tall.
  • Zookeepers take different routes to get into the field. Some earn degrees in zoology, animal training or marine mammals, others major in psychology. Most of them work unpaid internships and gain hands-on experience at zoos.
  • Preserving an American Species – Chris Lasher, animal management supervisor at the NC Zoo, is also the coordinator for the red wolf species survival plan, or SSP. He oversees the efforts of all zoos and facilities with red wolves to ensure the species doesn’t go extinct in captivity. Out in the wild, in eastern North Carolina, there’s an estimated 20 red wolves left. Only seven are documented. Therefore, the new red wolf puppies at NC Zoo are especially exciting.

  • It’s a myth that porcupines throw their quills. Kelly the porcupine’s keeper, Kim Van Spronsen, shares that quills are loosely attached to the muscle, so they fall off easily if touched. Kelly, the porcupine, is one of the Zoo’s most popular ambassadors. She lives in the desert habitat, which is inside a dome structure. Kelly is 15 years old and has arthritis, so she walks regularly for exercise. She came to NC Zoo five years ago and is originally from Africa.
  • Zoo animals receive the royal treatment! C’sar, the elephant, does yoga. His keepers use a plunger-looking target that directs him where to move his limbs. Rafiki, the elephant, gets acupuncture to help with his achy and stiff joints, but he often pulls out the needles.
  • Rhinos Linda and Kit have both had two babies since 2018. Linda’s baby, Jojo, was mentioned on the show and was born on February 24, 2020. Kit’s recent baby is named Magoo.
  • Want to bring grandparents but concerned about the four to six hours of walking to see everything? The NC Zoo Society offers Ride-and-a-Guide and VIP tours. Small groups ride around the Zoo on golf carts with a private guide. How cool is that?
  • Outdoor dining is available with a variety of restaurant and snack options. In Junction Plaza near a tram stop in North America, Crossing Pizza Café serves whole pies, pizza by the slice and various snacks and drinks. Individual gluten-free pies are available as well.
  • NC Zoo has active YouTube and social media channels with educational videos and live sessions. Follow them @nczoo.
  • Indoor habitats have temporarily closed since staff cannot ensure proper distancing there. Check the website before visiting to confirm exhibit and restaurant status and read the Zoo’s health and safety policies. Currently, all visitors enter at reserved times through the North America gate.

If you decide to stay over in Asheboro, there is plenty to do outside the Zoo’s gates. All nearby: Seagrove Pottery, the Petty Museum, the North Carolina Aviation Museum, Pisgah Covered Bridge and Kersey Valley for ziplining, laser tag, ax throwing and more. The Table coffee house and restaurant in downtown Asheboro has a farm-fresh, seasonal menu. Last but not least, don’t miss Glaze King Donuts for a still-warm treat or dozen.