Produced by National Geographic and narrated by Josh Gad, the eight-episode docu-series Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom provides a backstage glimpse into the animals that live at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park and The Seas with Nemo & Friends at EPCOT at Walt Disney World in Florida. Throughout the season, you will get unprecedented access and a peak behind the magical curtain to see how the more than 5,000 animals from more than 300 species co-exist with the animal care experts and Imagineers to create a one-of-a-kind experience for guests.
At a virtual press junket to discuss the new series, Collider got the opportunity to chat with Dr. Mark Penning, Vice President of Animals, Science and Environment for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, and Primate Zoological Manager Rachel Daneault. During the interview, they talked about what they do at Animal Kingdom and with the Disney company, being proud of the legacy of conservation that was established by Walt Disney, caring for the well-being and happiness of the variety of animals on the property, the unpredictability of the profession, and the animals that they’re personally drawn to.
Collider: I loved this series and was surprised about how emotional it made me. Can you guys both talk about what you do at Animal Kingdom and what you love most about what you do?
DR. MARK PENNING: I just have a personal mission to save the world and save wild animals and wild places, and to use the amazing Disney company infrastructure to be able to do that. The conservation and protection of wild places goes all the way back to Walt Disney himself. We’re very proud of that legacy.
RACHEL DANEAULT: For me, I’m a little more focused. I am part of the animal care team, and what I really love about it is that I get to really understand their behavior and how that helps us take care of them, and then how we can help guests understand them and want to help these animals, all over the world. These guys are really great ambassadors and being able to be someone who makes that connection for them is one of the perks of my job.
What’s it like to not only care for the health, well-being and happiness for all of these different types of animals, but to do so for a company like Disney and how that also changes the standard you have to live up to?
PENNING: Absolutely, yes, you’re quite right. We’re very proud of the legacy that Walt has left us. We are also very aware that our brand is really important to us and we make sure we take the very best care of our animals. We have the very best people taking care of them and we protect the animals in the wild through our Disney conservation fund. You add all of that to our amazing, visionary Walt Disney Imagineers, and you have an incredible package that hopefully our viewers are going to find very engaging.
The animals not only live in the theme park itself, but they also live in little areas around the property. What does it take to keep it all going in the healthiest way possible for all of the animals?
PENNING: Gosh, that’s a wonderful question. It takes a team of dedicated professionals in every sphere of animal care that you could imagine, from a basic animal husbandry to scientists who understand and study animal welfare to veterinarians and vet techs to specialists and nutritionists. We’ve got everything that we need to take care of animals from eight-ton elephants all the way down to two-gram poison dart frogs, and everything in between
Rachel, what’s it like for you on the day to day? Because this is a job that changes all the time, do you ever wish that there were days that were more predictable or do you enjoy the unpredictability of it all?
DANEAULT: I think one of the reasons I initially got into this field was that I didn’t want to sit behind a desk and do the same thing every day. One of the things I love is that these animals challenge us to make sure that we are doing our best for them. As soon as we think, “Oh, we’ve got that,” they’re gonna throw something else at us and we’re gonna have to start doing something different. So, absolutely, I love the unpredictability because that helps me keep on my game. Honestly, it also lets us know that we’re doing the right things for them because they’re simulated and they are growing and doing different things.
Is that the same for you, Mark? Are you somebody who also likes the unpredictability of it all?
PENNING: Oh, absolutely, yes. I love that. We get to work not just with animals on a day to day basis, but we work throughout our Disney Conservation Fund to protect animals out in the wild. The fund has directed over a hundred million dollars to protecting and saving wildlife, inspiring action in communities and protecting the planet, and we’re so proud of that. So, every single day is different.
What are the animals that you feel most drawn to, curious about, or intrigued by, just from having experienced them?
DANEAULT: I’m actually over here at Gorilla Falls and I just really am drawn to gorillas. One of the things that really has caused that to grow are the opportunities that I’ve had here. We have actually been able to build a gorilla orphanage over in the Democratic Republic of the Congo called The Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center. I got to help build it, I got to help move gorillas to it, and I go back and help them with those animals. One day, we’re hoping that we’re gonna reintroduce some of those animals back into the wild. For me, it is such a full circle process because I was able to take what I learned here and I’m helping those animals out there to directly go right back into the wild, form a group, have offspring, and increase gorilla numbers in the wild. That’s brings me full circle and really makes me love my job.
PENNING: I grew up in South Africa and, as a veterinarian, was very lucky to work with the lions and elephants out in the wild, and animals like that, which is an incredible privilege. For me, it was about helping animals to do the best that they can do in the habitats that they are in. What that does here for me is that it translates into great animal care with an amazing team of people, and into the work that we’re doing to protect them in the wild and even right here in our backyard. We have an amazing sea turtle program at our Disney’s Vera beach resort that is just incredible. We have so many programs that we’re really proud of. It’s that link between the animals that we have here at Walt Disney World and the animals in the world around us, and how we protect both of them.
Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom is available to stream on Disney+.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.