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They're Acting Like Animals on This 'Survivor'

Gorillas at the Prague Zoo are starring in their own reality show. It's the Czech way of making fun of TV's latest craze.

January 15, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — As lowland gorillas go, Richard has a certain aloof panache.

He gets e-mail. He's inspired a line of underwear. He eats a lot. And in his gruff way he's become a TV star in a parody of reality shows featuring that whining, self-obsessed other primate higher up the evolutionary chart.

This is Richard's big weekend. He could become king of the cage, or just another stooped, bow-legged hairy has-been. Through write-in campaigns and nationwide voting, Czechs will select either Richard or one of three other gorillas today as their favorite in the reality show called "Unmasking." The lucky ape will win 12 watermelons.

"It's part satire, part education," said Miroslav Bobek, the creator of the show, which put 16 cameras in a pavilion at the Prague Zoo and let nature take its course over the last three months.

"The Czech spirit has always questioned authority. The authority in this case is the huge popularity of 'Big Brother' and other reality shows. Why are people sitting in front of their TVs watching these shows? I think people with limited intelligence watch them to fill their emptiness."

A zoologist by training, Bobek is head of the science station for Czech Radio, a public broadcaster. He's produced nature and environmental programs for years.

Last summer, as the reality TV craze swept this country, where the absurd is often revered more than ridiculed, Bobek had a vision that -- he blushes to mention it -- almost compelled his station manager to kiss him. Apes started appearing twice a day on public TV and around the clock on the show's website (www.rozhlas.cz/unmasking/portal/).

Weighing 450 pounds and standing a little over 6 1/2 feet high, Richard swaggers, groans and occasionally preens on the show. Don't mess with his food.

The three other adult gorillas are all females: Kamba and sisters Shinda and Kijivu. They wrestle, loll around, swing on ropes and play with 1-year-old Moja. The offspring of Richard and Kijivu, Moja is considered too young to be in the competition.

Kamba arrived at the zoo in 2003 and her attempts to interact and be accepted by the sisters led to growls and tiffs. Kamba has a mean streak. She once attacked Richard, leaving the dominant male perplexed and upsetting the hierarchal balance, although the two appeared to reconcile and had sex on New Year's Eve.

Kamba's bio reads: "I was born a long time ago in 1972 in Africa, probably in the Cameroon wildwood. When I was 2, animal poachers caught me. They killed my mother and other aunts and uncles from my family. It was horrible, but I almost don't remember it."

Martin Smrcek, an animal specialist working with the show, compared Kamba to the kind of woman you wouldn't want to cross on "Survivor."

"Shinda seemed to have an unshakable position," wrote Smrcek on the show's web diary. "But suddenly, after the arrival of Kamba, she lost her position. Kamba has allied with Kijivu over time and Shinda, having been left without any support, found herself at the very [bottom] of the hierarchy."

Standing the other day near the gorilla pen, Paula Fraitova, a university student and part-time zoo worker, peered through the glass at Shinda and Kijivu, who had just turned their backs to the crowd. Moja skittered and rolled in the hay. Richard looked over the people looking him over, seemed to have a thought and went to sleep on a couple of logs.

"I watch it every morning on TV. But what do I think about it? To be honest, I find it strange to have a reality show about gorillas," Fraitova said. "I understand apes are close to people, but it's odd to interface with their lives. What's the next step? We give them cellphones? ... What's the gorilla get out of all this? Watermelons."

Radim Dusek was not so philosophically probing: "In my opinion, people in reality shows don't know how to act, but gorillas do."

Money raised from "Unmasking" will be sent to an African nature reserve. Many episodes include commentary from conservationists and scientists. The gorilla pen is sometimes like a quiet house, and other times it turns into layers of laughs, cackles, yawns, bravado, contemplation and scowls that whirl and die. Humans are accepted and teased. Apes pose for postcards.

"We get many, many letters," said Bobek, a tall man with a perpetually dangling cigarette and rimless glasses. "People don't want it to end. It's become part of their lives. I didn't expect that the interactions among gorillas would be so close to people."

"There's always something happening, but not in the way that viewers are used to or what they expected," the zoologist said. "It's changing expectations."

Today's winner will be given his or her 12 watermelons one at a time. Nature being what it is, the show's producers don't want the finale to turn into a nasty food fight.

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