DVD Review: Loose at the Zoo

Hi there!

It’s impossible not to like animals at my house. I’m married to a veterinarian, have two young daughters, two dogs, and two cats. My house is a zoo. So when we get a chance to learn something about animals in other parts of the country, in the wild, or in some of our nations’ best zoos, we tend to take advantage of it.

Loose at the Zoo is a collection of three episodes from the series by Smithsonian Networks and the Infinity Entertainment Group. Infinity has been doing a great job of distributing Smithsonian programs on DVD and this is no exception.

At Washington D.C.‘s National Zoo, they have a number of very successful breeding programs, including those for the Golden Lion Tamarin, the Sumatran Tiger, and the Kori Bustard. These animals (both parents and any offspring) are well taken care of by the zoo staff who feed, clean, and care for them 24/7.

In “Baby New at the Zoo,” we get a tour around the zoo to see some of its newest inhabitants. We see the Golden Lion Tamarins, swinging from the trees with nary a cage or fence in sight. We see three Sumatran Tiger cubs being fed and trained in preparation for their big public debut. We see a cute little Kori Bustard chick recently hatched and running around in the nursery. And we see a baby sloth bear learning to use his uniquely designed nose to get mealworms out of a log in his habitat.

In “Loose at the Zoo: Golden Lion Tamarins” we learn much more about these cute creatures who roam freely in a large area of trees at the center of the zoo. The keepers aren’t afraid they’ll go too far, for the Tamarins are very territorial and like to keep together, but that doesn’t keep them from exploring other nearby areas of the zoo or chasing the occasional squirrel invader.

It was quite interesting to see this family of four Tamarins skillfully moving from tree to tree, and how the zoo staff were keeping them entertained. From the use of a modified cooler for a nest to mop heads laced with mealworms, it’s obvious that the keepers (and many volunteers) are taking great care to keep these monkeys as wild as they can to eventually release them in their native habitat in South America.

And in “Tiger Tales,” we learn how the zoo is preparing three Sumatran Tiger cubs for their grand introduction to the public in their habitat. Through the use of training and gentle help to make sure that the cubs were safe in the lagoon in their enclosure, the keepers were keeping a close eye on the three big kitties before their big day. And mom was never too far away either.

Though we enjoyed the three episodes, it was quite apparent, watching them back to back, that there was a lot of footage duplicated between them. It was especially noticeable for the Tamarin and Tiger segments. And, like on some other Infinity/Smithsonian projects, there were no extras on the DVD beyond a promotion for some of the other Smithsonian series available.

Other than that, each episode was well constructed, with many facts to take away about each of the animals and tons of great footage. I know that my two girls enjoyed seeing these zoo babies and would have liked to have seen more.

If you’re a fan of cute zoo babies, and especially if you have kids, Loose at the Zoo should be right up your alley. Check it out!

–Fitz

p.s. Be sure to check out Loose at the Zoo at your local video store or online.

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DVD Review: Light at the Edge of the World

Hi all…

How do you define the term “culture” when it applies to a people? It is so much more than a set of traditions or language. It also is the embodiment of a way of life by a group of people. In a time where change to the environment and societal perceptions at large affect us at a monumental rate, we stand to lose many of these other ways of life at an alarming pace.

In Light at the Edge of the World, host Wade Davis introduces us to four disparate cultures separated not only by physical distance, but philosophical differences as well, and how they are affected by these changes. Davis’ main warning is that once a culture is gone, it will never return. But in some instances, groups of indigenous people are rising to the challenge and embracing their beliefs and traditions even in the face of such long odds of survival.

The Light at the Edge of the World series explores these cultures in four parts: “Arctic: Hunters of the Northern Ice,” “Himalayas: The Science of the Mind,” “Peru: Sacred Geography,” and “Polynesia: The Wayfinders.” The series was the winner of the 2008 New York Festival Silver Award, Magazine Format; and the 2008 Telluride Mountain Film Festival “Spirit Place” Award. I think it deserved both and so much more. In a world where some people doubt the effects of global warning, how can we let these fascinating cultures simply fade into the past?

In the early 1950s, there were 6,000 languages spoken by the world’s people. Now more than half of those are not being taught to the next generation, which means that in a single generation, we’re losing the cultural legacy of more than half of the world’s people.

In “Arctic: Hunters of the Northern Ice,” Davis joins a band of Inuits as they hunt for polar bears in the frozen northeast between Canada and Greenland. Igloolik, Nunavut is the home, and serves as the start of a hunting trip on the shores of Baffin Bay, more than 100km into the ice. They must travel further and further from home to find the polar bears that used to be plentiful.

Even though the Inuit adapted to the rapid change in the area since missionaries appeared in the 1950s and now use snowmobiles instead of dogs, adaptation is rarely easy. But even with the societal change, it’s impossible to miss the effects of global warming when the ice they once counted on is not where it should be. They do the best they can and try to keep their traditions alive, but fewer and fewer of the younger generations want to learn the old ways, and eventually they may disappear forever.

My favorite episode of the series was definitely “Himalayas: The Science of the Mind.” I have always been fascinated by Buddhist philosophies and to explore not only their philosophy, but their way of life, even as displaced as they are from their monasteries in Tibet. Buddhism spread from India to China and its goal is simple: help reduce the suffering in the world. To do this, practitioners encourage people to stay on the path to enlightenment (Dharma) to rise beyond the suffering in the world.

Buddhism is also under investigation in the scientific world as a way to literally change the shape of the mind. Devout practitioners focus on compassion and kindness to spread true happiness to themselves and those around them. It is a philosophy but also a spiritual practice grounded in contemplation. They have measured the minds of practicing monks and have seen the difference between a mind schooled in meditation and serenity and a western mind and quite literally the brain patterns are totally different.

Davis himself explored the realm of meditation as well during his stay in Nepal, visiting with a number of Rinpoche (spiritual leaders). You can see that he was truly affected by simply being in the presence of these calm, spiritually aware people who have achieved enlightenment. In one part of the documentary, his tears seem quite genuine as he deals with trying to still his mind. I have read other accounts of people meeting with Rinpoche or the Dalai Lama who have felt overwhelmed in a similar way.

In “Peru: Sacred Geography” Davis travels to the Andes in South America where he introduces us to a culture influenced not only by the beliefs of their Incan ancestors, but by the Spanish culture and Catholic religion that infused their society when they were invaded in the 1500s. Their current culture is an interesting mix of the two. Even in the modern age, they still honor the spirits of the mountains around them (known as Apu), and hold religious ceremonies to not only celebrate the gods in hopes of encouraging good seasons of planting, happy marriages, and so on, but also to spread their cultural heritage with the other groups in the area from Bolivia and Ecuador as well.

The last segment, “Polynesia: The Wayfinders,” focused on a group in Hawaii trying to reengage with their Polynesian ability to understand the ocean. “Wayfinding” is an ancient skill used to understand the ocean and weather to navigate without a compass or sextant. Nainoa Thompson, a Hawaiian native, learned the skill from his grandfather Mau Piailug and built a double-hulled voyaging canoe, the Hokule’a. Nainoa and his crew have sailed as far as Easter Island (3,000km from Hawaii) using these ancient “Wayfinding” techniques and are teaching others how to do the same in an attempt to keep their culture from disappearing completely.

Davis has a way of letting the cultures themselves speak to the audience using amazing photography, maps, history, and first-hand accounts, but he also injects some of his own understanding of anthropology, archaeology, and ethnobotany, to help pull these various sources together in a meaningful way. I wish this series was required viewing in high schools across the country to try and make the next generation(s) understand what is at stake if we do nothing.

To quote Edmund Burke, “It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.” Perhaps it’s time for the good people of the world to step up before we lose more of the human resources to global changes.

Unfortunately, there were no extras on the DVD, just some previews for other Smithsonian television series: Stories from the Vaults, Women in Science, America’s War Stories, and Nick Baker’s Weird Creatures.

That said, I have to say this has to be one of the best anthropology-themed series I have seen to date. If you are interested in some of the world’s disappearing cultures, be sure to check out Light at the Edge of the World.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick this up at Amazon! Here is the DVD and here’s the book:

DVD Review: Critter Quest!

Hi there!

Do you like bugs? Creepy crawly slugs? How about frogs? When you were a kid, you probably either gravitated towards these things (I know I did) or ran away from them screaming. And a joint project between Smithsonian Networks and Infinity Entertainment Group wants to remind you of those days.

Critter Quest! introduces us to host Peter Schriemer as he explores nature in three episodes of this series from the Smithsonian Channel. Peter lives in a much wetter climate than I do (in Michigan) and you could tell from all the entertaining critters he found just strolling around the yard. But he goes beyond his yard to explore the broader scope of nature a bit of a time, gradually introducing concepts in a kid-friendly way.

This series is definitely aimed at kids. Not only do you learn about various species and bugs (such as the pill bug or rolly poly, which was one of my favorite bugs to find as a kid), but different concepts such as echolocation and migration are explained. In one episode, you are even shown how to create indoor habitats for these critters so you can bring them inside if you are so inclined. My daughters were riveted to each of the episodes included.

In “Creepy Crawlers Everywhere,” Peter introduces himself and explores his back yard looking for various creepy crawlies. During the episode, we learn about the click beetle, slugs, a tree frog, and a jumping spider. I learned that slugs make their own slime, which is what enables them to glide over surfaces (and requires that you wash your hands after handling them).

“Season of Change” explains the many ways animals get ready for the winter. Some creatures forage, such as squirrels, spending the ever shorter days before winter stashing food where they can get to it during the colder months. Some go into hibernation, such as frogs and turtles, choosing to go into a deep sleep when food is scarce. And then Peter talks about the many birds who migrate to warmer climates to find more food. He had a chance to interact closely with a Red Tailed Hawk, which is great because they’re one of the raptors we have even around my house in Colorado.

And then in “The Wild Side of D.C.,” we’re introduced to the many animals who live in Washington D.C. (beyond the political animals that migrate there several times a year). Peter was able to explore a part of the Smithsonian Institution and show us a huge millipede they have in a collection there, as well as the many Canadian Geese, squirrels, ducks, and other animals who live in the urban landscape.

Critter Quest! is an award-winning series on the Smithsonian Network, including a Silver Parent’s Choice Foundation Award, the 2008 Cine Golden Eagle Award, and an American Conservation Film Festival Award for “Children’s Programming.” I think it’s definitely earned those awards and we would love to see additional episodes in the series.

That said, the lack of extras my only disappointment with the DVD. It only includes three short episodes of the series and no additional material. There are previews for other series, such as Stories from the Vaults, but I would have liked to have seen some additional resources for parents or children about the many topics covered.

However, I know I found Peter an engaging young host and the series worked well for my kids, keeping them interested for all three episodes.

If you like nature programs and are looking for some new options for your own children or a school, I think Critter Quest! is a great addition to your DVD library.

–Fitz

p.s. Be sure to check this one out at Amazon:

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