Kids and critters
Tuesday, 5 June 2018
VetScript Editor’s pick – June 2018
It’s a truism: children love animals. As Naomi Arnold reports, TVNZ 2’s new show Fanimals explores that relationship with heart, sensitivity and a keen awareness of animal welfare.
When Whitebait Media was testing out its idea for TVNZ 2’s new after-school animal show Fanimals, the producers went to a market research agency to find out how many Kiwi kids weren’t keen on animals and why. The agency soon came back with a problem: they couldn’t find any.
“Well, they found one, but that kid later admitted they just said that to be contrary and their best friend was their nana’s dog,” Fanimals producer Reuben Davidson says. “One hundred percent of the kids were for an animal show, even if they didn’t have pets of their own.”
It’s a dream audience for a show exploring Kiwi kids’ relationships with animals – and it’s the perfect vehicle for one of its presenters, Vetora BOP Animal Hospital Clinical Director Stacey Tremain. Stacey is a familiar figure on New Zealand screens from his regular pet segment on Kiwi Living, as well as starring in the 2017 reality series Vet Tales with Vets North Kumeu large animal veterinarian Mark Young.
In Vet Tales, Stacey often dealt with high-pressure problems on the operating table while facing the TV cameras, but his new gig is more focused on education, combining two of his loves: working with children, and, of course, animals.
“I got to the age where any opportunities that come along, I want to take them, and this was one of those situations,” he says. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but everyone has been amazing, brilliant and supportive.”
With co-presenters Jess Quilter and four-year-old Golden Retriever Molson, Fanimals aims to help kids and parents learn about caring for animals as well as having fun with them. The NZVA has been supportive from the beginning, along with the SPCA and the Department of Conservation.
Segments include ‘Animals with Jobs’, ‘Farmyard Olympics’, ‘SPCA Diaries’, and ‘Celebrity Pet Date’, as well as visits to exotic species in zoos, meeting endangered species, following kids taking part in conservation projects and introducing kids and their pets to the nation. Stacey and Jess also meet animals in the studio to, for example, discuss a cockatoo’s lifespan and enrichment needs, check for mites on a brown shaver, microchip a rabbit or reiterate the importance of desexing kittens.
Stacey’s ‘Ask Me Anything’ segment has him answering kids’ questions, too. “There are some very specific questions, such as, ‘Why isn’t my rainbow fish showing its colours?’ They really keep you on your toes,” he says.
Stacey is also a dad to two daughters, and before he started the show, he was going to drop to part-time at Vetora Rotorua to fit everything in. “But everyone is so efficient that they only need me for one big day,” he says. “We film all my stuff for the five days in one day and we just get it done, so it’s turned out to be not that much of a drain on my real job.”
He flies to Christchurch on Tuesday morning then takes the last flight back to Rotorua in the evening. “The production people are the definition of an amazing team; it’s all run very well.”
Early on in the production process, Whitebait producers approached the NZVA to see if it would support the show, and the NZVA’s Chief Veterinary Officer Helen Beattie and Head of Communications and Engagement Lynley Jenkins have offered advice and ideas.
Helen says they worked with the show to make sure the animals were cared for responsibly, while also considering the messages the show was broadcasting to families. As well as Molson, the show has an adopted menagerie that includes two kittens called Micro and Chip; guinea pigs Gregory, George and Gavin on 24/7 livestream; 15 tropical fish; Northland geckos Taika and Tama; and lop-eared bunnies Fern and Clover. A full-time animal carer keeps an eye on the four-legged staff members and provides continuity of care, with spreadsheets logging each animal’s toileting, activity and food and drink.
The NZVA wanted to make sure it wasn’t supporting a “circus”, Helen says. “They were all well intentioned, but you don’t know what you don’t know. We were stoked that Fanimals thought to pick up the phone and talk to us, saying they were aware they weren’t experts and asking how to do it well.
“We gave advice on making sure there was environmental enrichment for the animals held on site, having them really well acclimatised in the places they were going to be, not over-handling them, and having the animals direct all the interactions – if they get up and walk away then, ‘Leave them alone; you don’t get to force another shot just for the sake of the show’.”
The NZVA made sure the show would be responsible in its portrayal of safety around animals, such as making sure that horse riders wore helmets, and that it would emphasise desexing and microchipping, and discussion of the ethics of buying animals online, buying animals with exaggerated features and associated welfare problems, and managing the ownership of pets like rabbits who might chew power cords.
Stacey says the result is a very animal-focused set. “They are looked after so well. The temperature of the studio is based on them, so if it gets too hot all the lights go off and they get the ventilation going until it’s right. They’re committed to walking the walk in terms of animal welfare; you can see it behind the scenes.”
Producer Reuben Davidson says the animals set the pace for everything that happens on the show. “We have had a lot of great contact with the NZVA about how we can make sure that what we’re doing on the show not only is best practice but also supports the work that the NZVA puts so much energy into. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is entertain and engage our audience, but there’s such an opportunity here to educate. We need to do that not with chalk and talk, but by making people aware of how amazing and precious animals are, as well as the responsibilities that go with them.”
Stacey says he’s glad to be promoting the veterinary profession to kids, as well as animal safety and handling. “In Rotorua we have had a few issues with dog safety, and we go out to schools and do presentations. We thought we were doing an okay job reaching 300 to 400 kids at a time, but on TV the reach is so much greater. It is a really good way of getting positive messages out there, such as how to handle a dog, cat, guinea pig, bird or chinchilla.”
He enjoys the community connection side of being a celebrity veterinarian, answering the odd pet question in the supermarket aisles. “The best thing is when I’m driving to work and there are two little kids looking out the back of the car in front waving at you. Their little eyes light up and it’s cute as.”
Helen says the NZVA has “a very long-term view” of its involvement with Fanimals. “It’s about being able to support a member if and when they might need it, but we also made the decision to be involved and provide support on a strategic basis, because we want more animals in better homes.
That’s about educating owners to maybe not just buy a pet they saw on Facebook that was cute. If we can educate some kids and influence some parents, that’s going to have a massive follow-on effect.”