By Ashley Mooney
Duke alumnus Martin Kratt detailed his journey from his time as an undergraduate throughout the creation of several wildlife shows targeted toward children.
Kratt spoke Monday to a crowd of students, wildlife enthusiasts and some of his younger fans about his roots in wildlife conservation. With his brother Chris, Kratt created several wildlife television shows—including Kratts’ Creatures, Be the Creature and Wild Kratts—as a way to aid education and preservation of endangered species. Several of his roots tie back to Duke, namely the star of his popular show Zoboomafoo, which featured Jovian, a captive Coquerel’s Sifaka from the Duke Lemur Center.
Kratt got his start as a student technician at the Lemur Center—then known as the Duke Primate Center—in his junior year.
Although he initially wanted to be a conservation veterinarian, he credited his beginning in wildlife television to a class at Duke called amphibian ecology. Kratt borrowed an underwater camera and filmed salamanders during class field trips, creating a video on the amphibians for another class he had been taking for fun. His film ended up winning the Hal Kammerer Memorial Prize for Film and Video Production.
“Every weekend our professor would take us on field trips to the coastal plains of Piedmont to the Smokey Mountains—looking for salamanders, that was the course,” he said.
He joined Ken Glander, professor of evolutionary anthropology, on a research trip to Costa Rica. There, Kratt helped Glander catch Howler monkeys amidst the dry northern rainforest. He remained in Costa Rica for an additional six months, filming the wildlife in the area.
“We started taking these videos . . . to elementary schools in New Jersey. We sat and ate pizza at lunch, asking them what they liked and what they didn’t like. And the great thing about kids: They are honest critics,” he said. “Overall, they liked it, from kindergarten to fifth grade.”
Despite positive reviews from their younger audience, several networks did not find the Kratt brothers’ idea feasible.
“One comment we got from National Geographic was, ‘it’s cute but it will never be a TV show.”
Despite many setbacks, Kratt created a known collection of children’s wildlife programs. His new endeavor, Wild Kratts, aims to teach kids about animal behaviors that are known or suspected to exist, but have never been caught on camera.
“There’s animal behaviors that nobody’s ever seen, for example sperm whales fighting colossal squids,” he said. “If we did a series using animation we can show all of these behaviors that eluded us.”
This idea evolved into the current series Wild Kratts. The show is now ranked number eight in ratings of animated shows, two spots ahead of SpongeBob, Kratt said.
“We’re all working together [to help endangered species]. Scientists are studying to gather new information; educators are educating [and] policy makers can make policy,” he said. “Everybody can find their own path and their own way to help save endangered species.”