Talking Pictures: Into the wild

Talking Pictures: Into the wild

San Francisco Zoo’s Joe Fitting on using ‘Zootopia’ to get back to nature

Joe Fitting, deputy director of the San Francisco Zoo, is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior, and his infectious enthusiasm for the creatures of earth. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Zoo.

By David Templeton

“Sad but true, there is no more wild left in the world,” says Joe Fitting, deputy director of the San Francisco Zoo. “It’s true. There is no real wild place left on the planet. It’s all shared space now. Zootopia, this crazy Disney movie, it shows all of the different animals sharing the same city, the same spaces, the same world.

“So Disney got that much right,” he says with a laugh.

Acclaimed by critics and audiences as one of the best non-Pixar animated movies in years, Zootopia—directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush—has instantly become a gorilla-sized hit for Disney. But what does an actual zoologist have to say about it?

“Well, it’s a very entertaining movie,” says Fitting, a longtime animal enthusiast and veteran Zoo spokesperson. “But it’s a movie! It’s not reality! Don’t, in any form or fashion, think Zootopia—charming and funny though it may be—has anything to do with real animals!”

Imagine a fusion of Chinatown, Fort Apache, the Bronx and The Godfather—only with animals. In a vivid, animated world where predators and prey have learned to suppress their appetites and just get along (more or less), and where all animals have opposable thumbs and talk and dress just like human beings, one animal, a simple country rabbit (voice of Ginnifer Goodwin) dreams of becoming a big city police officer. Fighting institutional bigotry and her own petty prejudices, she teams up with a con-artist fox (Jason Bateman) to solve a troubling “missing animal case,” which might just be the beginning of a massive city-wide “instinct regression,” turning the semi-peaceful citizens of Zootropolis against each other, once and for all.

“What? Animals can’t really talk? I’m crushed,” I remark.

“Hey! Wait! Animals can talk!” Fitting replies with a laugh. “They talk to each other all the time. Animals have very complex communication.”

I once again must concede the point. Still, none of the residents of the San Francisco Zoo can claim to be quite as adept in street slang and political double-speak as the critters of Zootopia. The film features a first-rate cast of voice actors, from J.K. Simmons’ calculating Mayor Lionheart and his token-sheep assistant Bellwether (Jenny Slate) to the massive water-buffalo police chief, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) and the long-haired, yoga-stoner yak named Yax (Tommy Chong).

“So, in terms of the way animals do interact with each other, what else did the movie get right?”

“Well let’s see. Let me think,” Fitting muses. “What did it get right? Well, it did a pretty good job of identifying mammal species. This was a world of mammals. Did you see anything else in there? Birds? Fish? Reptiles and amphibians? I guess I saw a bug or two.”

“At least,” I suggest, “it proves that the filmmakers can properly distinguish mammals from all other types of animals.”

“Sure,” Fitting says. “But beyond that, there was nothing in the movie that suggested they had any of the behavioral stuff correct.”

“What about the sloths?” I ask. “They seemed pretty … um … ”

“Sloth-like?” Fitting completes my sentence, laughing again. “OK! Wait a minute. Sloths.

Sloths move s-l-o-w. And foxes and rabbits move fast. So yeah, OK. They got that right, too.”

The San Francisco Zoo, considered one of the top facilities of its kind in the country, has recently received the Quarter Century Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, marking its 39th year of consecutive accreditation for its high standards of animal care, conservation, veterinary programs, safety and education. Fitting, who’s been with the zoo since 1980, is known for his encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior, and his infectious enthusiasm for the creatures of planet earth.

“I did like the sloths,” Fitting admits. “That was a great bit. Sloths really do move slowly, and it’s related to their metabolism. Sloths have very weird metabolisms.

“We break the world into cold-blooded and warm-blooded,” he continues, “but that’s a generalization, right? These sloths—and some other animals, too—they bounce back and forth between being cold-blooded and being warm-blooded. Sloths occur in warm climates, so they don’t put a lot of energy into controlling their body temperature, the way you or I do. We spend enormous amounts of energy trying to keep our bodies at 98.6 degrees.”

Who knew sloths had so much going on?

Well, Fitting did, obviously, and he’s on a roll now.

“Sloths bounce back and forth between what’s called ‘poikilothermic’ and ‘homeothermic’ regulation,” Fitting continues. “Homeothermic refers to your temperature during moments of activity, so when sloths are foraging for food, really movin’ and huntin’, their temperatures go up. But when they go into a torpid state—which they spend a good portion of their day doing, because they eat lots of plant materials and stuff like that—they go into a poikilothermic state, which is a kind of torpid state.”

“So,” I ask, “since the movie failed to include terms like, um, ‘poikio’—”

“Poikilothermic,” Fitting says.

“Right. Since it’s unlikely to, you know, spread actual scientific terms to the kids of America, is there any chance it’ll at least create an interest in sloths—and some of the other animal characters in the movie?”

“Well, the fact that we have a two-toed sloth is probably going to bring people to the zoo, definitely, because of this movie,” Fitting says. “And we’ll have fun with it, saying things like, ‘As seen in the Disney movie Zootopia, behold! The two-toed sloth!’

“Actually, ‘as seen’ isn’t the right phrase, is it,” he asks, “since that was a fantasy version of a sloth? Maybe we’ll say, ‘As referenced’ in the Disney movie Zootopia, or something like that.

“Look,” he adds, “we are always happy when some new movie drives people to want to visit the zoo. We are a hundred-acre park, and a hundred-acre classroom, and a hundred-acre garden, and a hundred-acre zoo, all at once. You can lie on the grass, smell flowers and watch the bees, take a ride on a tram and go see a bunch of lowland gorillas communicating with each other. We’re trying to connect people back to nature, giving people a window into the wild.

“And for all of its fantasy parts,” he allows, “Zootopia does that a little bit, too. Anything that makes people appreciate animals more, anything that makes them want to know more about the natural world, anything that connects us to this amazing world we live in, that’s a very good thing.”

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