The second season of “Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom” is now on Disney+. I was invited to interview Dr. Geoff Pye, who is the Animal Health Director at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and is a big part of the “Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom”, helping to develop the stories and he can also be seen onscreen.
“Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom” is a unique series that features a variety of behind-the-scenes stories of animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, The Seas with Nemo and Friends at EPCOT and other locations. We are at Walt Disney World often and I love knowing more about the animals we see (including the Purple Martins around property).
Here is my interview with Dr. Geoff Pye! There are some spoilers if you haven’t seen the show.
Photos copyright Disney
MS: Can you talk about your role at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park and The Seas with Nemo and Friends?
Dr. Geoff: I’m the Animal Health Director. So think Chief Veterinarian for Disney, and I lead our animal health and animal nutrition teams. And we provide the health care and the food for all the animals at Animal Kingdom, Animal Kingdom Lodge, EPCOT The Seas with Nemo and Friends, Tri-Circle-D Ranch…and then offsite – both down in the Bahamas, where we have a stingray interaction program down there and then the Aulani Resort in Hawaii. For about seven, maybe eight months now of this year, I also led up the animal side of the production of the second season of “Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom”.
MS: What is your role in regards to “Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom”? Do you get to choose the stories?
Dr. Geoff: I help develop the stories. Some of the stories can just be told. And then others are reacting to what is happening that day. And so, my job was to help curate those stories, understand what was going on…whether it was at The Seas, or Animal Kingdom, or Animal Kingdom Lodge, or the ranch. And ensuring that the animal areas and the film crews were able to align with each other to capture those stories. I had a team that I led with that, and part of what that team did was just ensure that not only was our animal’s welfare considered during the filming, but also both our Cast and our film crew’s safety. Because you can imagine, some of the animals we work with are pretty dangerous. We’re very used to that here. It’s a bit of a different world for our film crews. We just want to make sure that they’re safe too.
MS: There are so many different kinds of stories that you focus on (at the time of the interview, I’d watched four episodes). How hard is it to balance them? For example, you have Olivia the okapi birthing Beni, which is a beautiful moment – but you also have Spike, who passed away. And then there is everything in between – surgeries, and the horses training for Cinderella’s coach. How hard is it to balance all of that?
Dr. Geoff: It takes a little bit of effort. (Dr. Geoff serves Disney’s Animals, Science, and Environment). We basically take care of the animals, we do the science and then we lead all the environmentality work for the Walt Disney Company. And I think in the first season, what shone through is how much we care about our animals. And I still think that’s the soul of the second season, but we really wanted to also show …what are our conservation efforts? What are our environment efforts? How do we connect our guests to our animals? And to me, that’s why I believe season 2 is bigger and better than season 1. We had that opportunity to…as you go through the season, you’ll see that we’re down at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort looking at our sea turtle conservation efforts. We’re at EPCOT looking at our Purple Martin conservation efforts. We’re over at Fort Wilderness with one one of our environment stories. We have a glass pulverizer that’s turning glass back into sand that we’re able to then use. I love the variety that we’re providing and that we’re giving our viewers a broader look behind the curtain of how everything works here. And we’re not just so focused on the care of the animals, we’re showing all the other things we do to try and help the planet.
Note: We talked a bit about the pandemic and the filming of “Magic of Animal Kingdom” Season 1. Season 1 started filming just prior to the pandemic, and then the film crews had to leave because the parks were closed. The Disney Parks Blog at that time had a lot of content about the animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom because it was an area that real-life stories were still happening.
Dr. Geoff: We were providing the sort of content that people wanted to watch at a time when everything else about the pandemic was horrible…the parks were closed so people couldn’t get access. But we were then able to share our animals with them, our stories with them, the care that we take. I think the fact that people were at home with time on their hands maybe…they really connected with the show. It meant that when they came back, they had a deeper connection to our parks here. In the second season we’ve expanded on those stories and are hopefully inspiring people. I think in the first season we were hopefully inspiring people to become a veterinary technician, or a scientist or a keeper. I think we still do that in the second season, but I think we also inspire people to think about…what could I be doing at home to try and make the planet a better place? In our sea turtle rehab story where we end up releasing turtles back, I think it’s a great example…there’s this really great shot where we compare jellyfish to plastic bags in the ocean. I’m hoping that they see that story and it just makes them think a little more when they’re at home…”.
He continued that he hopes people will bring back bags to recycle them instead of having them end up in the ocean. And I brought up the six pack can holders, how we cut them up so they don’t end up around the necks of turtles and other wildlife.
MS: Is there ever a time you start a storyline and it doesn’t end up how you expected?
Dr. Geoff: Yeah, you mentioned the Spike the gorilla story. That was not the outcome we were hoping for Spike. I mean, it’s the outcome that was in his best interests I think from a quality of life perspective. I think we ended that story in a way that felt like it respected Spike, and the carers that took great care of him. I would say that it’s probably like most TV shows in the sense that what you see might be 20% of what was shot. I think there’s at least one story that was shot in Season 1 that we didn’t use. And then the other thing that you’ll see in Season 2…like when we come across animals that were our friends from Season 1, we kind of reflect back a little bit on those and…there’s some good giraffe stories where we do that. We do it with baby Grace the gorilla, we celebrate her third birthday in the second season. And we go back to her developmental challenges that she had in Season 1 and just show how much she’s thriving now. We start stories sometimes and it’s not really necessarily that the outcome wasn’t great or anything like that in the story. We probably shot enough footage for two seasons but you’re only making one (laughing). The benefit with the second season is that we added two more episodes, and each episode is ten minutes longer. That made our job a bit easier. We didn’t have to put really great stories and go, “Well we just can’t fit them in”. But we do have the opportunity to select what what we think are the best stories and make sure that they get in.
Dr. Geoff discussed how the show gives the opportunity for the audience to learn about hidden gems at Walt Disney World, including The Seas with Nemo and Friends at EPCOT and Rafiki’s Planet Watch at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, where there is a veterinarian hospital that guests can look at.
Dr. Geoff: “They (guests) can come see our real TV show every single day if they wish. Some of the activities that they just don’t know happen at Walt Disney World. I think about our Purple Martin conservation program as a great example of that. Guests walk past the Purple Martin gourds and they just don’t recognize that there are birds in there. They’re nesting, they’re raising young. They (the Purple Martins) come all the way from Brazil to come to Walt Disney World (laughing). So I’m excited that some of the lesser known stories are going to be promoted through the show.
MS: I have one last question. Do all the animals on the Savannah and in the parks have names?
Dr. Geoff: I would say we name all mammals here. There’s a large proportion of birds and reptiles that get named. I think all of our sharks and rays are named. I think that one of the things that people don’t understand is that the vast majority of our animals have personality and individual personalities. It’s very easy for us to name them because we recognize those personalities in those animals. I feel like sometimes people don’t realize how individual those animal personalities can be. I do think that comes through in the show. As an example, you might go on Kilimanjaro Safaris – you’ll go out there and see nine giraffes running around…and to you, they all look similar. They don’t look like they necessarily have individual personalities. But through the show, you get to know, like Lily and Kenya and Amira…and who are the ones that tend to stop in front of the trucks, and who are the ones who tend to interact more with Rory the keeper. Rory spends so much time with those animals. He’ll understand every little nuance in them. I think that is something that maybe people don’t really appreciate, but that’s really the reason why they all have names. Now, if you go to somewhere like Hippo River and you look at the tilapia fish in there and there is 1000 of them…we aren’t interacting with 1000 fish enough. I suspect they all have personalities as all animals do, but we just don’t interact enough with them to get an understanding of that.
Thank you to Dr. Geoff Pye for his time!
Watch “The Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom” season 2, on Disney+ now.