There’s no John Belushi in this ‘Animal House’ from PBS

Courtesy of PBS

Following the travails of rodents, bugs and birds, The Animal House looks at not only how different species in the animal kingdom live and forage for food, but also how they build their nests, dens and civilizations. The one-hour Nature program from PBS, which recently arrived on DVD, is like watching a bunch of small workers with tiny hammers. They sometimes toil for months on their loving abodes, all with the intent of protecting their young, outlasting the winter and rustling up for some much-needed solitude.

The camerawork on the special is exquisite. There are so many beautiful landscapes captured by the lens of these skilled videographers. Coupled with a clever narration, written by Mark Fletcher and voiced by Chris Morgan, it’s hard not to fall in love with these homely creatures.

Most of the case studies deal with the rodent class, with their chewing teeth, furiously hard-working hands and digging capability. We watch beavers den off rivers and build comfortable lodgings that keep them warm during the winter months. Their home is so spacious and enjoyable that several visitors like to stop by, including muskrats.

The prairie dogs take center stage, probably because they’re so infectiously adorable. The little furry watchtowers build tunnels in the American prairie that are so complex their living rooms become veritable mazes. Burrowing owls sometimes pass through and take advantage of the hard work of the digging dogs.

The birds are the highlight of the program. The way they meticulously build their nests to serve as safe refuges for their young is impressive. They are the equivalent of human seamstresses, sewing grass blades, twigs and even spiderwebs to build sacks that hang in the sky.

The program ends with an exploration of ant colonies. It seems that most animal programs eventually make their way to the ants. For The Animal House, the inclusion of the antennae aliens makes perfect sense. Their homes are perhaps the most convoluted and widespread. One particular example is unbelievable: Researchers pour cement into an abandoned colony to see how deep the home traveled underground. After digging away the soil, they unearthed an entire civilization that looks like a human city on a small scale.

Within the constraints of delivering so much information within 60 minutes, the program inevitably leaves some animals out of the mix. It would have been nice to check into some larger species. The final minutes of the special investigate how gorillas live without houses, but it’s a somewhat disconnected ending to the TV program. Hunting down the unique ways that larger mammals find their homes would have been a nice capstone. For example, to see bears and foxes hibernating in the winter would make sense. They don’t build their B&Bs, but they certainly find them and turn them into homes away from home.

Still, the images in The Animal House linger for a long time after the final credits. The beauty of the world and its animal kingdom is on fine display. Who would have known that a walk through the woods was a walk past so many hotels, houses and hidden countries?

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • The Animal House

  • A Nature program from PBS

  • Narrated by Chris Morgan

  • Written and edited by Mark Fletcher

  • Running time: 60 minutes

  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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