Get the shovel, the elephants have left us some work to do. This episode is all about zoos and the animals housed within. Is running a zoo anything like management sim Planet Zoo? Well, a bit. We talk to long-time zookeeper Matt Price about his experiences as a carer for animals in various zoos in the US, and he tells us about picky polar bears, high-strung cheetahs, escaping monkeys and more. Also joining us is writer and animal appreciator Nate Crowley, who has played a ton of Planet Zoo, and fills us in on the Great Warthog Crisis of 2019…
Click “more” for a full list of links and transcription.
Interview music is Perspectives by Kevin MacLeod
Intro and outro music is from the Planet Zoo launch trailer
Brendan Caldwell, host: Hi there. Welcome to Hey Lesson, the podcast where we underhandedly teach you things through the lens of popular video games. I’m Brendan Caldwell, and I’m here to ask clever people silly questions, but I’m also here to talk about video games. Toda we’re going to talk about Planet Zoo, which is a management game where you build your own zoo and you fill it with animals while trying to keep your guests happy, your enclosures well-staffed, your lions satisfied. Very soon we’re going to hear from a real zookeeper and they’ll tell us what it’s like to actually take care of polar bears, how animals come to be in a zoo, and the unlikely friendships formed by cheetahs in captivity. First, however, we always have a guest co-host on. This time, it is games journo, novelist, and noted animal liker Nate Crowely. Hello, Nate.
Nate Crowley, journalist: Hey Brendy. How are you doing?
Brendan: I’m doing well. How are you?
Nate: Not bad. Just staring into the cloudless blue sky, like the villain at the end of, what was it called? Sunshine, in the movie where the mad man stares at the sun. It’s like that, but not sinister basically. What I’m saying is I’m enjoying the summer.
Brendan: You are the right person to talk to about this stuff for multiple reasons. But Planet Zoo, the PC game has been out for a couple of years now, but just in case any listeners don’t know much about it, can you tell them exactly what Planet Zoo is and what you do in it?
Nate: Sure. First of all, if you’ve ever experienced Planet Coaster, another park management game by Frontier, it’s very similar in terms of format. If you haven’t, you start with, you know, either a blank map or one with some scenery or a scenario map, and you have an astonishing toolkit with which to build a zoo. And I mention that because I think other than the simulation of the animals, which is probably the best I’ve seen in the game, what I really like about Planet Zoo is how much creative freedom it gives you with construction. You have all these hundreds and hundreds of little bits, you know, either architecture bits or plants or rocks or whatever, and you build it from the ground up. You can go into minute detail and you’re making surprise-surprise habitats into which you put am-i-nals. And then little fellows coming and pay to be amazed by them. And I, you know, I wouldn’t say it is the most heavy duty management game because it has got that big aesthetic focus on lovely animated beasts. And, yeah, it’s free-form sandbox construction. But you know, it’s a decent management game. It’s got solid mechanics and it’s something I have dumped hundreds of hours my time into, since it came out.
Brendan: This is partly the reason why I wanted you on for this episode, but also because you have worked in a zoo before.
Nate: Yeah. Not for a long time now, but in my early twenties I gave talks at the London aquarium and little bit of animal stuff there. And a little bit later than that, I worked weekends in the education department at London Zoo where one of my jobs at the weekend was to look after their menagerie of animals. And I’d get to take them around the zoo, take them out to schools and things like that. That was a belter, that was.
Brendan: We’re going to talk a little bit more about both Planet Zoo and your experience with animals as well. First, as I said, we’ve also got an interview with an expert on the show. And this week, I spoke to Matthew Price who is a zookeeper in California, and he told me what it was like working with animals every day. A quick note, there’s a small bit of construction work happening in the background of this call. So sorry about that. But it’s not that much. The important thing is that we’re going to learn some animal facts. So here’s what Matt had to tell us.
Brendan: Matthew, firstly, could you tell us who you are and what you do for a living?
Matt Price: Yeah, I’m a zookeeper. I have been working in the zoo industry for the last 21 years. Just hit that mark in April. I’ve worked at zoos like the San Francisco zoo where I started. I’ve also worked at Disney’s animal kingdom in Orlando, Florida. After that I worked at the Woodland park zoo in Seattle, and currently I work at a very famous zoo in the Southwestern United States in Southern California. So I can’t actually say that, unfortunately, the name of that zoo, but I’m sure you can figure it out.
Brendan: Do you specialize in any specific type of animal?
Matt Price: I am kind of a generalist. Uh, most recently I’ve been working with a lot of carnivores, like polar bears, lions, Jaguars, and things like that. But if you can think of a taxa of animals, I’ve probably worked with them at some point in my career, everything from elephants, all the way down to invertebrates, you know, bugs and stuff. But currently with the bigger, scary guys, the carnivores and the large livestock, like takin and zebra and, you know, larger Gazelles and things like that.
Brendan: Being a zookeeper. What does that involve day to day?
Matt Price: I start work at 6:00am, get out at 2:30pm. So I’m up at 4:30 in the morning, which is extremely early, especially for somebody who throughout most of his life has been kind of a night owl. Usually, n non-COVID times, we would all, all the keepers on staff for that day on that particular team, would meet up. We’d discuss the day, what’s going on. You know, are there any moves? Are there any vet procedures that need to be happening? And then we go into doing, what we call morning checks on our animals, in the areas that we’re working. So we’ll walk around, you know, basically making sure everybody’s alive and well. And then we get into the real meat of our day, which usually starts with cleaning and feeding the animals. Throughout the day we’ll be doing keeper talks and presentations for the public because a big part of our job now, as opposed to zoos in the past, is education. We’re also educators in this field. You know, a lot of people go into taking care of animals because they don’t like people or don’t do well with people. So there’s a lot of introverts in the field, but more and more we’re figuring out that we are also frontline educators because people, you know, they want to know about the animals. They want to see the animals, if they can interact with the animals, they want to do that because it’s tough to make people care about something that they can’t see and interact with, or at least learn something about.
Brendan: I’ll ask you – and I want you to be honest – how much of your career so far has been spent cleaning up poop?
Matt Price: Well, you know… about four to six hours a day, times 21 years. So that’s a lot of poop that gets cleaned up. I can tell you that our elephants, specifically, there’s several hundred pounds of poop that gets picked up a day, just from those animals.
Brendan: What’s the best animal to work with if you’re a zookeeper,
Matt Price: It kind of depends on… what you want to do. For me it’s polar bears. I’m kind of a bear or a dog kind of guy. I kind of feel like I understand them and they understand me. Cats are kind of the opposite end of the spectrum for me. I don’t really understand them that much and they don’t really seem to necessarily understand me. So it just kind of depends… There are people that are really into working with primates. I’ve done it, I’ve worked with great apes like gorillas and orangutans, but for me, that’s not the work I want to be doing. You have the really weird people that are just super into bugs and they want to be an insect zookeeper. You know, bird keepers are kind of a unique breed as well. When you meet somebody in the zoo field, you can often tell what kind of keeper they are based on their personality, interactions, and bird keepers are of a very distinct personality, in general. So “best” is kind of a difficult question to answer, but for me, I would say polar bears and larger carnivores.
Brendan: In the video game that we’ve been playing Planet Zoo, you get new animals by… you sort of find them in a big list and you click to buy the lemur or buy this Timberwolf, you’re essentially ordering them from a catalog, but how does a real zoo get their animals?
Matt Price: That’s a really good question. So, you know, ideally you are replenishing your collection from the animals that you have. You know, you have a successful breeding herd or a breeding pair if it’s a larger carnival type animal or something like that. But, you know, the goal is to keep the gene pool robust. You don’t want brothers and sisters breeding. You don’t want mothers and sons breeding, that kind of thing. So there is a system in the zoos called the “species survival plan”, someone that’s a head of that list basically. And what they’re doing is they are matching up animals within the zoo community. We’re mixing animals around. So we’ll send animals to other zoos, we’ll get other animals that come in and it’s different for every type of animal, right?
The other way that we can get animals still – and this generally refers to invertebrates and animals that are not endangered – sometimes, we will still collect animals from the wild. That doesn’t happen anymore in terms of the charismatic megafauna. Like we’re not just bringing an elephant out of the wild to have it in a zoo. If that is the case, then it’s usually a problem animal. I’ll tell you one quick story from San Francisco zoo. We had a polar bear there that was from Alaska. I think she’s probably passed on at this point, but she was from Alaska. And she was a problem there. She kept coming into this small town in Alaska and basically going into the dump, eating garbage. And you can’t have a polar bear running around your town, right. So they would sedate it, take it away about a hundred miles in a direction. And then it would come back to the same town. That happened three times. So you have really only a couple of options with animals like this. You either put them into a managed care setting, like in a zoo, or you probably are going to have to destroy that animal because it’s going to be a significant risk to human life. And in those interactions, the animal, unfortunately, is always going to lose. Another situation is two of the three polar bears we have at my current zoo, they were orphans from their mother. So, it is still legal for native people in Alaska and in places in Canada to hunt polar bears. So in this situation a hunter killed the mother, didn’t know that she had any cubs but found out after the fact. [They] saw the cubs, called an organization that was able to come in and rescue them. And polar bears will stay with their mom for about two to two-and-a-half years. And they learn how to do everything from their mom, including swimming. So these are pretty much helpless bears at this point. … So there’s really no other option than to put them into a managed care facility, because they’re not going to survive on their own. In fact the two bears I’m talking about learned to swim in the pool at the children’s zoo. So they literally learned how to do everything from people at a very young age. I think they came into our zoo at three months old. So, very young.
Brendan: How are those animals physically transported, how are they shifted from place to place? Are there special restrictions across countries? Like if one was traveling from one country to another?
Matt Price: Oh yeah, there’s all kinds of permits and paperwork to sign. And I’ve taken animals to the, to the airport before in a crate. You’ve got to deal with the normal, the more normal crate and baggage people. All of a sudden they’re lifting a crate with a Jaguar on it and they want to look in the thing and stick their fingers in there, try to get pictures, all this stuff. So, you kind of have to stay with them until they basically go on the plane. And in some instances, the animal has to be able to turn around, and you have to be able to secure a water bowl, that kind of thing. Yeah. So there’s lots of ways to do it. Ideally, it’s going to be ground transportation, but obviously if it’s going overseas, like we’ve sent animals over to Germany and other places like that… it’s different for every animal too. Like when you’re shipping something the size of an elephant, you know, you need like a big sea container basically to, to have the animals secure and not hurt itself or not break the shipping container, that kind of thing.
Brendan: You also need to feed them the right thing in the video game. In real life, how picky are animals about what they eat? Do antelopes turn up their noses at certain grasses?
Matt Price: Absolutely they do. Yeah. For our stock collection of herbivores, we provide multiple kinds of hay. We have alfalfa and a Bermuda or Timothy grass hay, a Sudan hay that’s kind of more kind of more like straw almost. So every animal has their desire. But we also have a nutrition staff that makes all the numbers work and tells us what we should feed and the amounts that we should be feeding. And sometimes, I mean, it’s great to have that guideline and making sure we’re meeting the nutritional requirements of those animals, but as keepers on the frontline, we also see that just because this nutritionist recommended a certain feed doesn’t necessarily mean the animal wants to eat that. So then you kind of have to go back and forth and negotiate with them. And that’s different at every zoo. At smaller zoos maybe they don’t have a dedicated nutrition staff and are just going based on what other organizations are feeding. So it’s kind of a give and take of what the animal wants to eat and what they need nutritionally to be successful.
Brendan: So are lions as fussy eaters as house cats are?
Matt Price: Sometimes, yeah. I work less with the lions these days, but I can tell you that our polar bears… we have three different bears and all three of them have their favorites. And some things that they just flat out will not eat. And then there’s other dietary restrictions as well. Like, their base diet is actually ground-up horse meat. And there’s a virus called the equid herpes virus, which actually has killed polar bears and bears in general in the past. So we can’t even actually feed them their base diet. So they make a special beef diet just for our bears. That’s the only thing that they can eat as their base diet. But then when we throw in enrichment, we’ll feed squid, sometimes we’ll feed live fish, sometimes we’ll get lamb carcasses and stuff like that. And, so the male polar bear, he really likes those lamb carcasses, but the two females, they turn their nose up at them. So, definitely even within individual species, you know, the animals have their own likes and dislikes.
Brendan: You said you worked at Disney for a while. What was that like? You’re not, you weren’t keeping Mickey Mouse in a big enclosure were you?
Matt Price: Uh, no. I did work at a show setting at Disney. It was called the Pocahontas And Her Forest Friends show, which doesn’t exist anymore. And it was native north American animals that would go onstage with a professional actress that played the Pocahontas role. So that was kind of a cool show because there were no trainers on stage. And usually in an animal show, there’s a trainer on stage with whatever’s happening to direct the animals. But this particular one, we trained a raccoon to come out, pick up a sunflower and then exit across the other stage. So the keepers in that situation would be sending the animal out. They already know the behavior they’re supposed to do, and then the keeper on the other side of the stage would come in and pick them up.
Matt Price: Um, but that was just one section of Disney’s animal kingdom. They have big Savannah exhibits to where the keeping is more traditional, like what I’m doing now. So, it’s a very interesting place to work. I would say that I enjoyed my time there and I’m glad that I went there, but also it’s a whole other world working for Disney. One of the things that got sent to me when I first found out that I was hired was something called the Disney Look Book. And that tells you, you know, crazy things that you would never even think of. Like what kind of sunglasses you can wear. You can’t wear mirrored sunglasses. If you’re a man, you can’t – I think they’ve changed this recently – but when I worked there, you couldn’t have any facial hair except for a mustache. But if you wanted the mustache, you had to have had it fully grown in on a vacation or before you started working there, or whatever. Beards were not allowed at all. Females, they tell you down to the millimeter how long their fingernails can be, what kind of nail polish they can have. The lingo is different. You’re not an employee, you’re a “cast member.” You don’t wear a uniform. You wear a “costume”, when you’re out with the public you’re “on-stage”, when you’re not you’re “backstage”. So whole, whole different world from that perspective. I’m more of a laid-back guy. There was a lot of rules and stuff to keep up with. So I’m definitely happier somewhere else. But I learned a lot at Disney and they do a great job. One of the great things about being a zookeeper at Disney is that – because they have more money than God, right? – you can have basically anything you want for your animals. So, you know, they’re going to be well taken care of and have the best possible facilities and all that stuff. So, definitely perks of working there, but the work in general is not for me at Disney. So I’m glad I’ve moved on.
Brendan: In the video game, some of the walls and the fences can get into a bad state and they’ll fall apart, which means that the animals will escape. So there’ll be lions out and about in the zoo. Have you ever encountered any escapees in reality?
Matt Price: I have been a part of very few animal escapes. Luckily nothing with anything dangerous, like lions or tigers or any large carnivores that’s actually going to do any damage to me. But you know, we’ve had Gazelles jump out of exhibits before. We definitely have precautions to make it’s so it’s difficult for them to do that. We have, you know, moats that are in front of the wall where the people are watching the animals, and where the animals actually are. So they have to get a real nice running start. My experience, animals like that, they get out of their exhibit and they’re immediately looking to get back in it. Because they think it’s cool out there, but all of a sudden they realize everything that is valuable to them, the food, their friends, a shelter, all that kind of stuff is back where they just came from. So, you know, I’ve seen monkeys escape where they’ve ended up sitting on a guest’s head, like a monkey jumped on a guest shoulder and they were able to net it and get it back without, luckily, any harm to that zoo guest. We’ve had animals like Takins bust through gates, big reinforced gates. A takin is… it’s kind of a big goat-like animal, they’re from China. We have the Szechuan version of them. So they’re, you know, it can be up to like 1500 pounds, big, strong animals. They’re one of the few herbivores that we are not allowed to go in with because they will just stomp you dead. So we’ve had animals like that wander out, and they’re just hanging out on the hillside, eating grass, laying around lounging. And, you know, they’re pretty excited to come back in once they realize that they’re out and the food they want to eat is probably back in their exhibit. So it just kind of depends generally. It’s not because of a degradation of the exhibit and a zoo, because that is part of our daily routine too. I forgot to mention it, making sure our perimeters of each exhibit are secure. So that’s not usually an issue. Usually it’s something like, for the monkey, they’re in these giant exhibit, it’s super tall, so they can climb up in the trees. Right. So the very top of the steel mesh netting at the top, a small hole opened up and they were able to squeeze out of it.
Brendan: So some of the animals you can house together in Planet Zoo, in the game, not every species needs to be kept apart. Is that the case in real zoos?
Matt Price: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, some of my favorite things to do are create and make species exhibits. Sometimes that’s a solo animal, like a tiger or something as a solitary animal. So it doesn’t want to have friends. But animals that are herd animals, you know, they want to have friends around. So not only do they have friends of their own species, they have other animals in the exhibit to interact with and explore and different smells and that kind of thing. So, yeah, that’s absolutely the case, especially in herbivore kind of kind of exhibits.
Brendan: What animals go well together? Are there any animals you wouldn’t expect going together, but actually work fine?
Matt Price: Yeah. Uh, one interesting case is our cheetahs. So cheetahs are extremely high-strung animals. Like they are nervous in lots of situations. They’re very skittish. And our behavior department uses cheetahs as animal ambassadors. So they’re out walking around the zoo with two keepers. Usually holding on to a harness just in case one was to lose a grip or something like that. So that even puts them into situations that could make their high-strung nature, you know, be set off at any time. They might not necessarily go after a guest or something like that, but being in a situation where they don’t feel good and try to leave that situation. So our cheetahs, we actually raised with dogs, domestic dogs. Again, I’m not in this department, so I’m not a hundred percent sure how it works, but the theory is that the dogs help calm the cheetah down. They’re kind of like a companion animal and emotional support animal. And usually they’re with the same dog, the dog has the same cheetah, their entire lives. So that animal becomes somebody that they can look to. Let’s say they’re out in the public and the cheetah senses something that’s going to set it off. They can look over to the dog and see the dog is totally calm. So that makes the cheetah think that everything is okay. They can leave the dog and the cheetah alone. They’re totally fine. You would think that maybe the cheetah might want to eat the dog, or at least not put up with it, but that’s probably the unlikeliest combo that I’ve ever seen work
Brendan: In Planet Zoo. If you aren’t keeping your zoo in good condition, protesters can appear. And they’ll picket the enclosures. Is that something that happens in any zoo that you’ve worked in?
Matt Price: Yeah, absolutely. That happens at every zoo, but at the Woodlands Parks zoo, I can tell you specifically, we no longer have elephants there. And one of the reasons for that is protesters. There was a group, they probably even still exist called the Friends of the Woodland Park Zoo Elephants. And they would show up pretty much every day with signs and protesting outside of the zoo.
Brendan: I mean, this is the elephant in the room, so to speak. A lot of people might say zoos are quite exploitative by nature. Why shouldn’t we abolish those and just let animals live in the natural world?
Matt Price: Yeah. That’s a really difficult question to answer. There’s just so many reasons why zoos need to exist. First and foremost, we talked about it a little bit, but we’re not strictly entertainment institutions anymore. You know, when zoos first came around, I think back in Egypt, early Egyptian times, there were quote-unquote “zoos”, where rulers would take these magnificent beasts and put them behind bars. So people could come and look at them, and “look at how cool I am, because I have a big tiger” or an elephant or whatever. But nowadays, you know, good zoos are conservation organizations. They are not only keeping the animals. They are doing actual conservation work in the animal’s natural habitat and natural homes, trying to keep a habitat going, trying to replenish populations of the natural habitats. But like I said before, people don’t care about things that they can’t see, touch or interact with. Right? So I personally feel that zoos are important for that reason. Some of the most rewarding parts of my job is when you see, one of the bears hanging out in the pool and they’ve come over and put their paw on the glass and you see a little girl or boy come up and put their hand on the polar bear paw, they’re forming real connections with those animals that we’re hoping foster feelings throughout their life that these animals are important, saving their habitats is important. They’re valuable to our planet. So forming those kinds of connections and making people care about the animals is an extremely important part of the conservation process.
Brendan: Matt Price, thank you very much for speaking to us.
Matt Price: Thank you for having me. It’s a great time. Really appreciate you having me on.
Brendan: That was Matt Price, zookeeper. If you want to hear Matt tell us more things like how many zookeepers it takes to run a zoo or how much space an elephant is happy to live within, or what’s the correct procedure if that lion gets out of its enclosure, for example, you can hear the full uncut interview by subscribing to our Patreon. We don’t do any adverts on Hey Lesson. So we rely totally on our excellent supporters, all of whom get fully unabridged interviews with all of our experts. Matt’s is one of the longer ones, and it was very hard to cut down because he told me so many interesting things. So if you’re a supporter already, that’s definitely worth a listen. You can go to patreon.com/heylesson, or click the link in the show notes to find out more.
Nate: I thought he was brilliant and I’m suddenly feeling a massive sense of stolen valour, because I was like, oh, you know, I used to work part time in a zoo…. But he, you know, sustains polar bears. I just want to make it clear. I was in no way putting myself in that league… Back when I was at the zoo, like the actual zookeepers were like these Olympian figures that I would get incredibly excited if I got speak to. I remember once one of the reptile keepers let me have a quick look at a death adder in a bin. It was, honestly, it was like when you’re playing Hades and, you know, Zeus gets on the phone and he’s “Oh, is that Zagreus? You now have the ability to throw electricity. It’s on me.” …
Brendan: Have you ever been present during an animal escape?
Nate: I was part of the great drill, um, where they had a practice for what would happen if the gorillas busted out of gorilla kingdom?
Brendan: What are you supposed to do? I guess what Matt was saying? Just, the gorillas want to go back inside.
Nate: Yeah, pretty much. It’s very, I mean, you’d hope there’s like a mech deployed, or sedative gas missiles launched in salvos, um, a thick choking fog. But you just stand quietly in a room until the theoretical gorilla has been calmed down and reentered its enclosure.
Brendan: How much of what Matt was saying was recognizable to you as a player of Planet Zoo?
Nate: It’s a tricky one because I don’t think Planets Zoo has 100% fidelity to the businesses, but for very practical reasons, I can’t really blame frontier for that, because as you guys discussed quite a lot, there are people who are just fundamentally opposed to zoos and a game about zoos has to be pretty cognizant of how it’s presenting itself. And I personally think Planet Zoo has an almost saccharine, utopian, you know, almost propagandist view of zoos really. And I am really pro-zoo. You know, I would agree with every one of the points made during the interview, but I think the game over eggs that a little bit, and again, I understand why.
Brendan: What do you mean, do the animals never die or anything?
Nate: Well, they do, but nature seems like a very fair business and Planet Zoo, and it doesn’t really acknowledge… Whereas I think it is in many circumstances, justifiable, and even right, to have captive animals. That’s not always easy. And I think there are a lot of problems, that it’s possible to have that aren’t necessarily, they’re just a bit fixable in Planet Zoo. It’s all a little bit clean cut and it’s all happy-go-lucky. And you know, there are no zoos that are run purely for entertainment. Obviously all good zoos that we’re talking about do have a conservation basis, have a research basis, but yeah, there’s a lot of zoos in the world. I’ve been to monstrous roadside establishments in the United States where it’s just like 17 tigers in a cage, there is no conservation ethos there, you know. Those places are bleak and Planet Zoo, I guess kind of pushes all that quietly off of the stage. So only nice things happen in Planet Zoo. Even if animals do die. Occasionally.
Brendan: You say only nice things happen, but I’ve seen some of the things that you’ve built in Planet Zoo using the terrain tools and the construction tools that you were talking about…
Nate: Right. Oh, it’s a brilliant venue for surrealism. It’s funny, actually for someone who really likes animals, a lot of my gaming often tends to veer drastically towards putting them in purgatory. It’s fun with Planet Zoo because it’s geared up towards, you know, you’re making these sort of paradoxical enclosures, but because it offers you so much freedom and also to some really broken stuff. And to be fair, you can do it without upsetting the animals, but it looks like they really should be upset. So it’s kind of the moral, best of both worlds. Your animals in the game have all their needs met, but it doesn’t look right. I put big floating islands, like off of Avatar, in the sky with big holes like Swiss cheese, and put a tiger on it. And that tiger could have plunged to its death with one false move at any moment. And yet it didn’t, and it was blissfully happy with the whole situation.
Brendan: Might just be because it was high and far away from people.
Nate: Yeah. To get up to that, you have to go up a spiraling ramp that I think was over a kilometer in length. Just to see the tiger.
Brendan: I don’t know if that would fly at the San Francisco zoo or anything.
Nate: Well, it was like the big staircase in Skyrim round the mountain. Only the mightiest warriors are privileged with the view of the tiger.
Brendan: You’ve mentioned tigers. What other animals have you had in the zoo and are they difficult to manage in the game?
Nate: So Planet Zoo’s roster of animals is both really impressive and really disappointing. And I know I’m balancing everything nice I say about it with something critical, but that’s only because I love it. And we all hold the things we love to high standards because we dream about how they could do better. Planet Zoo has got, I think (because there’s new DLC about to come out with some African animals) but I think about a hundred animals. I think there was a phrase used in the interview actually, “charismatic megafauna”, which is a great term. And it describes the animals well, charismatic, megafauna
Brendan: The big charmers.
Nate: Yeah. It’s uh, elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes… you know, the big hitters and there are animals like those and lions and bears, which are the emblematic wild animals and which people will, you know, be most attracted to go and see. So if you want to be commercially successful as a zoo, you have to have those… And Planet Zoo has interestingly followed the same logic as zoos, because people will want to buy the game if they can put the most exciting animals in it. And to most people, the most exciting animals are large mammals. That’s why it’s a disappointment to me. I’ve got a lot of time for large mammals. I am one myself. But my favorite animals, the ones that I have a real passion for… I mean, I’ve got 28 fish tanks at home. I’ve got 17 species of freshwater crustacean. I like other things, amphibians as well, adore amphibians. There’s one in Planet Zoo.
Brendan: One amphibian!? Is it a frog?
Nate: It’s the Goliath frog, which is a really sick frog to be fair. But you know, it’s a shame as well because if you know anything about desperate conservation situations, you’ll know, amphibians are really boned.
Brendan: Yeah. The frogs are having a hard time.
Nate: Yeah. It’s a nightmare. It’s crushing as well because a lot of the big mammals, you know, as diligent, environmentally conscious people, we all assume the big majestic animals are under massive threat, but they’re not all. Frogs don’t get anywhere near that level of attention conservation wise. And they’re really…
Brendan: Won’t somebody think of the frogs!
Nate: Well quite. They are really sort of side-showed in Planet Zoo. So they’re not just frogs, but I think there’s six reptiles in the main list of animals. And I’ll explain briefly, there’s two types of animals. There’s “habitat animals”, which are ones that are actually animated and run around us as free agents. Uh, sounds like they’re employees, but you know what I mean? And then there’s “exhibit animals”, which… you just place boxes, like glass tanks, and you put one in and it’s got a pre-rendered animation. You know, it’s the one big [sad trumpet noise] in the game for me because of the massive amount of customization it offers you for everything else. And then for these exhibit animals it’s just, you know, what color lights do you want in your box? They’re just kind of a non-event, you know? They’re about as thrilling as one of the burger stands. Like I said, with all the fish tanks I’ve got, I mean, I spend huge proportions of my life carefully arranging rocks in glass boxes.
Brendan: I know this, especially because any listeners who also listen to the Rock Paper, Shotgun Electronic Wireless Show that you’re on will know that probably 20-25% of every episode is dedicated to you talking about the fish tanks.
Nate: I’m gradually wrestling it over to an aquatics podcast, but, you know, that’s the thing, there’s a huge amount of fascination to be had from smaller, wetter animals. Yeah. Planet Zoo is all… Yeah. It’s just big mammals.
Brendan: Matt talks about those different mammals. And he was saying like some get along and others don’t. Have the animals in Planet Zoo’s, when you put them together, had any fights. Have fights broken out or anything like that?
Nate: I think it does a really good job of this actually. If you do play Planet Zoo, do a search for “compatibility matrix”, because some genius has made a big spreadsheet showing to what extent all the different animals are compatible with each other. Cause they’ve all, you know, some of them actually get bonuses from being together. So there’s a big group of African Savannah animals, like warthogs, ostriches, Springbok, and the like, which actually get a bonus from being together. So most Planet Zoos will benefit from having a large Savannah exhibit with all of these lads in together. But you got some odd ones as well, where, you know, some of them don’t get a bonus from being together, but they have completely overlapping habitat requirements. Others have nearly overlapping habitat requirements. So if you make it a good enough habitat then the animals will be in, you know, seventh heaven. Whatever they’re doing, you can actually move the environmental parameters slightly out of their core preferences in order to accommodate the second species you want in there. And that’s no problem at all. So you get some interesting combos like Indian rhinoceroses and gharial, which are one of the reptiles in the game. They are a large Indian crocodile, it’s a specialized fish eater. And if you’ve ever seen that, it looks like someone’s just put a normal crocodile in Photoshop and just stretched the nose out comically. It’s got like a big stick for a face. I love gharials, but they can live happily with your Indian rhinos. And why not?
Brendan: Yeah. The rhino’s not gonna want anything to do with the crocodile. And the crocodile is going to look at the rhino and think: “what the hell, I can’t eat that.”
Nate: Yeah. “What is this large hill moving around?” So, I mean, an exhibit with those look splendid, yeah. See, you can do a lot of things with animals that don’t mind each other. I would like there to be more unexpected interactions. Um, cause you know, as was already pointed out, not all animals are the same, they have personalities. And something that works 90% of the time might not work some other times. And that isn’t addressed in Planet Zoo. So every animal, whereas they, honestly, they look alive, Frontier has done an astonishing job. You can just watch them. It passes like, you know, the Willdabeast equivalent of the Voight-Kampff test. You know, they seem like animals, but where it lets itself down is that every one is psychologically identical.
Brendan: It’s not like Matt was saying, where every individual polar bear has their likes and dislikes when it comes to food, every tiger in Planet Zoo will like the same things and dislike the same things.
Nate: Exactly. If it works for one, it’ll work for all of them. And that’s a shame because you know, nature is unpredictable and I think it would really add something to the game. If you would slowly become aware that you had a b****** elephant on your hands, you know, that would be cool.
Brendan: You are able to breed the animals though, and you can get animals, I think, from other players as well. There are online elements of the game that sort of simulate the breeding and buying programs of real zoos like Matt was saying, can you explain how that works? I’m not exactly sure.
Nate: Yeah. So there are two ways of buying animals, with money and conservation credits, which are an abstracted sort of token of your cache as a conservation institute. So if you take in rescue animals and rehabilitate them and release them into the world, you get conservation credits. If you breed critically endangered animals and release the offspring into the wild you get conservation credits. And if you want the real, the AAA animals I guess, the prices are generally in conservation credits. And as you said, there is an online marketplace where players can put their animals on the market and you can buy them. And there is what I said, they’re all psychologically identical. They’re not all genetically identical. There are basic sets of stats that differ, you know, lifespan, fertility, size, things like that, you know? So you can buy like an Albino Llama from someone playing in Mexico or something like that. And that’s quite nice. Are you aware of what happened to the market when the game launched?
Brendan: Yeah, because I looked this up earlier. There was a mess-up with the warthogs. The warthogs were flooding the animal market online or something. Players could only buy warthogs.
Nate: Yeah, it was… I can’t remember now exactly what the specifics were because they patched it swiftly, but basically economics happened to it really brutally. People were stockpiling gorillas to inflate the price and you just couldn’t get a decent animal for love nor money. All you could do as a new player was get the animals that were available for cash listings as a new player, which was basically three animals: ostriches, peafowl and warthogs. And you would just grind them, just breed hundreds and hundreds of them and spam the sales and, you know, release dozens of these animals a month into the wild.
Brendan: Warthog hyperinflation.
Nate: Yeah. And because you were mass breeding them as well… I won’t cut corners – they were all horribly in-bred – so you’re releasing all these wheezing cycloptic warthogs into a Serengeti that was just, horizon to horizon, these poor snuffling beasts. And you’d just tip out trucks and trucks more in the hopes that one day you’d have enough conservation credits to get a sickly Gibbon.
Brendan: There’s an offline mode now, like you don’t need to get your animals from other players.
Nate: Oh yeah. That was a brief and beautiful moment.
Brendan: I do remember you writing about a glitch in the game that meant some animals were becoming massive with all the breeding that was going on.
Nate: Yeah. So I was looking through, it’s got quite a good in-game encyclopedia, a lot of very on-brand Hey Lesson content. You can actually learn a lot about all the animals in Planet Zoo, with this very engaging in-game encyclopedia, but it also includes size records for animals that players have bred. And they’re all normal, apart from three exceptions. I found one, which was a female ostrich recorded as being, I think, 172 meters tall. Bear in mind, the tallest male one was like 2.3 meters or something completely reasonable. So yeah, that was chilling. There was… the largest ever Komodo dragon recorded – also a female actually, with a normal size male – was 0.0 meters.
Brendan: Wait, the largest or the smallest?
Nate: The largest! Which just, I mean, that’s one of those questions that just opens a whole nest of other questions. I eventually determined this must have been a Komodo dragon made of photons. The third one, which was horrifying, was a cheetah which only had a string of alphanumeric characters for a name, kind of like a bad faith actor on Twitter. And that cheetah was, I forget the actual number, but its length was six times the diameter of Jupiter’s orbit, in negative space.
Brendan: It was… minus… 6 million billion or whatever.
Nate: Yeah. That… imagine a couple of times the solar system. And that’s the area that a cheetah is not inside. I remember it and I, yep. That’s, uh, that’s cosmic.
Brendan: All Right. I think that’s it for another episode of, Hey Lesson, we’re out of time. You’ve been listening to me, Brendan, and my guest this week, Nate Crowley. Thank you once again for coming on.
Nate: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.
Brendan: Is there anywhere people can follow your work or hear more from you if they thought this zoo man seems interesting?
Nate: Well, I’m on a Rock Paper Shotgun where I do features and that. And you can also find me on Twitter where I’m at @FrogCroakley. And I have written a bunch of books, most recently, Notes From Small Planets, which is a fictional travel guide to some worlds I’ve invented, with Harper Voyager. And I just wrote a novel about knighted ork Ghazghkull Thraka for Games Workshop, which was great.
Brendan: I have read Notes From Small Planets so I can give it a thumbs up too.
Nate: It’s good toilet chuckles that one. Not to say it’s toilet jokes, but yeah, a great book to have in the bathroom. Cause you can dip in and out.
Brendan: If you’ve been enjoying Hey Lesson, please consider supporting us. We don’t have ads or sponsors. Like I say, so every little helps. You can subscribe on Patreon – I’m, by the way, I’m talking to the listeners now, not to you Nate…
Nate: I was gonna say!
Brendan: But yes, listener, you can subscribe on Patreon for as little as $2 a month. Aside from feeling good by keeping us going, it also gives you the uncut interviews that I mentioned, and there are other tiers as well with other rewards, like a monthly bonus episode in which myself and various friends talk about games more casually with no experts allowed. You can find out how to get those at heylesson.net or patreon.com/heylesson and finding your way from there. A big thank you has to go to all of the show’s current patrons. So if you’re one of those, you’re the best. The Patreon tiers are themed after animals. So that’s appropriate for this episode. Thank you to all the fact rats, the knowledge wolves, the comprehension octopuses and a special shoutout to our incredible questionably wealthy porpoises, Bok Choy, Horrendomonas, and Milk Is Gross And Bad For You. Thank you all for your continued support. We can’t do any of this without you. Thank you, lastly, of course, uh, to you again, Nate.
Nate: Yeah, my pleasure.
Brendan: And we’ll see you all next time. As always, thanks for lessoning.