ASHEBORO — Many North Carolina residents have visited the N.C. Zoo, but few may truly appreciate or even know that ours is the world’s largest natural habitat zoo in the entire world. With over 2,600 acres, more than 1,800 animals, and 52,000 plants in its possession, the N.C. Zoo, while not necessarily home to the most animals, is the largest by sheer size and undeveloped natural animal habitat.
“When the zoo was originally created back in the 1970’s the developers had the foresight to put it right here in Central North Carolina and leave much of it untouched,” explains Debbie Fuchs, public relations officer for the N.C. Zoo. She says that although the zoo, located in Asheboro, is 5,000 acres only 2,600 acres have been developed.
The Zoo is truly one of state’s most prized possessions and now, thanks to a new eight-part National Geographic series “Secrets of the Zoo: North Carolina,” viewers can go behind the scenes to find out what really goes on here day in and day out, getting a glimpse into just how much work it takes to keep the gears spinning. Nat Geo WILD has previously produced four other seasons of the “Secrets of the Zoo” franchise, but the first episode showcasing the N.C. Zoo will premier at 10pm on Saturday, Oct. 31, and later re-air on most streaming platforms.
Fuchs says Double Act TV, a London-based production company, first contacted her about doing the series early last year. “Double Act, which produces the series for Nat Geo WILD, heard that our zoo was the largest natural habitat zoo in the world and were eager to make it the center of their next series,” she says.
The show features personal stories from members of the zoo staff, including zookeepers and veterinarians, and even shows some of the emergency procedures they have to carry out, such as rescue and release of injured wildlife. “The N.C. Zoo you can compare to a small city, we have food and beverage, security, admin staff, animal keepers, landscape crews and workers,” says Fuchs. “There is a lot of behind the scenes footage of things people won’t see when they tour the zoo on their own – so it will be a really unique experience to see those things in this new show….you are going to see what it really takes to run the world’s largest zoo.”
Double Act started filming series five in North Carolina back in October 2019, and recently wrapped up in September. Throughout filming there was signage out that said National Geo was filming in the area. Fuchs says Double Act was incredibly considerate as a production company and she knew they were in good hands because Nat Geo WILD is always about animals first. “When the production company came in, they didn’t want to interrupt the animals’ routines because they wanted to get the real story behind the zoo.”
Fuchs says the staff was excited about the opportunity and exposure from day one of filming noting that they all hoped the show would raise awareness all the hard work that goes into being a zookeeper and put it on the map for tourists to visit more often. “The thing about our zoo is that it is a destination place, it is not on the beaten path, we don’t get a lot of foot traffic from people that are already in the area doing other things…we are kind of in the middle of nowhere, so we hope it will raise awareness about the zoo being right here in Central N.C. and hopefully make people want to come visit us and increase attendance.”
The Zoo is currently operating at 30% capacity allowing up to 3000 people in per day, due to COVID restrictions. All guests must either reserve a time or purchase a timed-entry ticket prior to visiting. Even in these challenging times, fans of the zoo are as enthusiastic as ever about all it has to offer. In 2019, the zoo recorded its highest ever annual attendance of over 900,000 guests. Fuchs says exhibits of the Africa and North America continents will soon be joined by Asia and Australia, with construction of Asia to begin this year.
“So many exciting things are taking place at the N.C. Zoo, and this upcoming series certainly adds to that,” says John L. Ruffin, Chairperson of the N.C. Zoo Society Board. “We are exceedingly proud of all the people that work at the NC Zoo and support this state treasure. It speaks volumes that such a well-respected organization as National Geographic would be interested in documenting our incredible story. Our unique ability to provide space for our animals and plants to thrive is a central part of our mission,” says Ruffin. “As you will see in the series the N.C. Zoo is not only an amazing asset to our state, but to our natural world. It is truly world class.”