'Being part of an animal soap opera’

'Being part of an animal soap opera’
Ben Fogle and Kate Humble with a koala at Longleat.

For Kate Humble, presenting Animal Park is like being part of a soap opera.

“That is the best analogy for it,” says the chirpy 50-year-old, also known for Springwatch and Countryfile. “But, storylines you couldn’t possibly make up.”

The London-born nature enthusiast has hosted the hugely popular BBC daytime show since it first aired back in 2000.

As it returns for its 14th series — with Ben Fogle as her co-host and Jean Johansson as a reporter — we can expect plenty more drama from behind the scenes at Britain’s longest-running safari park, Longleat.

“You get completely wrapped up in all of the day-to-day intrigue; ‘Who’s leading the pride of lions this year? ‘What’s happening in the wolves’ den’?” says Humble, who married director and producer Ludo Graham in 1992.

“And, of course, this year it’s a really big year for the park, because of the arrival of the koalas. First (southern) koalas to be in the UK and gosh, they didn’t come without drama! So, that’s been quite a whirlwind of a story to follow...”

It’s obvious, from how excitable Humble is, that returning to Animal Park means a lot to her. “There are still lots of keepers who have been there since the first time I started, and some animals too,” she effuses. “I’ve just been doing the voiceover for the programme; I always cry at the voiceovers and everyone takes the piss out of me!”

She finds it hard not to take her work home with her after a day of filming. “It’s not something you can just walk away from and it’s gone and done,” she notes. “You’re dealing with people, with animals, with emotions.”

It’s also important, she adds, to show the good and the bad of what happens at the park.

She reasons that’s partly why the show has been such a long-running success.

“We don’t hide the difficult stuff. It is a very real life drama and I think people really appreciate that. I think people find it very easy to empathise with the keepers because they all work so hard. They dedicate huge amounts of their lives to looking after these animals. I think viewers really understand and appreciate that, and empathise with them when they lose an animal or when an animal is sick — again, there’s been a lot of drama with sick animals this year.”

But even though some scenes are difficult to watch, there’s no denying there’s something wonderfully uplifting and soothing about watching wildlife shows.

“Particularly at the moment, where basically, politically, we’re in turmoil,” affirms Humble.

“There’s a lot in the news about, ‘We’re so divided as a nation’ and all of that kind of thing, and I think a programme like Animal Park is a great uniter. It’s got no political axe to grind, it’s just a lovely watch.”

Discussing her favourite moments from this series, a story about the only male eland at the park (he was brought in to mate with the many females already living there) suddenly comes to mind.

“Everyone was incredibly excited, because they’re really big these antelopes, they’re really magnificent looking, they’ve got these straight spiral horns and they’re really chunky beasts, very handsome... Opened the gate and this little eland trotted out — I think he’s called Norman — and everyone was like, ‘Oh he’s a bit small!’ ‘He’s here to have sex, but is he going to be able to do it? Are the girls going to listen to him?’

I was filming at the park and the keeper who looks after elands, we were driving past and she was like, ‘Stop the car!’ And Phoebe, one of the female elands, had had a calf and it turned out that Norman was, well, bigger than he looked!

“Now six or possibly even eight eland calves are cantering around. So it’s been a really bumper year.”

Next up for Humble is an “uplifting” Channel 5 show called Twice The Life For Half The Price, which follows “the stories of six families who are making big fundamental changes to make better lives”.

After working in this industry for a couple of decades now, how does she find watching herself back on screen? “My feeling is you can’t obsess or be over self-conscious about yourself on television,” is Humble’s refreshing response.

“If you’re shit, someone’s going to tell you, or you’ll stop working. I’ve been doing it for 20 years so I’m sort of doing something OK!

“I’m not the star of this show, the animals and the keepers are, and that’s what matters. As long as I feel that we, as a production team, have done our best by them, then that’s fine, and I’m not going to watch it and go, ‘Oh god, what was my hair doing that day?!’”

Animal Park airs weekdays on BBC One from today.

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