'Zoboo' bursts with spontaneity

By , Arts and television writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Kids can help save endangered species. That's the message Martin and Chris Kratt send children as they complete a 10-city tour in Boston at the Franklin Park Zoo tomorrow on their "Zoboomafoo Presents: Kratt Brothers' Creature Hero Tour 1999," sponsored by PBS.

The Kratt Brothers produce two of the best children's shows on TV. "Kratt's Creatures" is for school-age children, and "Zoboomafoo," which premired in January, is for preschoolers. Both appear on PBS (check local listings).

"Zoboomafoo" just started its second round of programs, and Zoboo (played by puppeteer Gordon Robertson) is cool - cooler than Cookie or Kermit. He is a lemur with a real-life alter ego whose leaping, hopping, bright-eyed antics fascinate little ones.

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Both shows are shot on videotape and are not slick flicks with high-production values.

"We found that kids don't care about the image. They care about story and adults talking to them like equals.... Kids have so much compassion for animals - about when they are hungry and when they need a nap."

Not that these shows aren't good-looking - they are. But they have a raw immediacy that wouldn't appeal to the ever-sleek broadcast networks.

The guys' sure-fire formula for children's TV: Be ready for come-what-may.

"We work from a bank of ideas we want to do," Martin says. "We work with a team of writers and come up with a script, but we realize the script will get torn to shreds when we start filming. The animals won't do the thing you hope they will do, and they will do things you never expected."

Martin tells the story of a little snow monkey whose natural habitat is Japan's frigid mountains. It survives the cold of winter by bathing in hot springs. The Kratts brought in a hot tub, but the monkey would not get into it. He loved Zoboo the puppet, however, and he kept hugging it and jumping on it. So the guys just pointed out that Zoboo could keep the snow monkey warm.

It's this kind of spontaneity that gives the show so much vitality.

"We love it when things go wrong - it gives you the opportunity to be really creative," says Martin, who was once forced to rewrite a script on a paper napkin over lunch.

Best of all, though, is the brothers' own enthusiasm, energy, and good-natured humor. Their big-kid personas speak to children on their own level, and still carry the authority of grown-ups. They call themselves "creature adventurers," and their sense of wonder and delight rubs off on viewers of all ages. Funny, boyish, and always excited about the animals they encounter, they build programs that explore relationships in the natural world.

In a recent "Zoboomafoo" called "Pets," they borrowed the puppies, cats, frogs, lizards, calf, and guinea pigs of a large country family and demonstrated how each must be treated and fed differently, played with, loved, and cared for. Then the brothers brought on animals that are not suitable as pets.

The children released a grown-up raccoon they had raised from infancy back into the wild, and they discovered that a lynx kitten could not be trained to use the litter box. Very small children learned a great deal in a short time.

And parents weren't bored, either.

The tour is designed to help kids think about conservation and to empower them as conservationists.

"We want to let kids know they can do things, they can take control of their own lives and their own environment," Martin says.

"A father wrote us and said his eight-year-old son created a club called 'Creature Crusaders' with all his friends. And they worked together to clean up a creek."

The Kratts further encourage youngsters with a Web site (krattbrothers.com) and they personally answer every piece of fan mail they receive.

Each of the participating zoos contributes one dollar to a conservation fund for each child who attends the event. The guys decided to take on the tour because in most of their fan letters children asked what they could do to help endangered animals. The money will help purchase land suitable for a nature preserve.

Since many children were concerned about grizzly bears and wolves, the Kratts decided to search for land in the West.

All the kids who participate are pronounced "Creature Heroes" (yea!!!).

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