The Lost Magic of Zoobilee Zoo

Sarah Bynum via YouTube
Sarah Bynum via YouTube

It wasn’t easy to impress Peggy Charren. As the founder of the Action for Children’s Television (ACT) organization, Charren was a tireless crusader for quality kids' programming. She resented the glorified toy commercials posing as juvenile entertainment and successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation limiting the number of ads aired during shows. She hardly ever promoted or endorsed a specific series.

But Charren made an exception for Zoobilee Zoo.

The 1986-1988 syndicated series about six anthropomorphic, artistically-inclined animals—including Bill Der Beaver, Van Go Lion, and Talkatoo Cockatoo, with Ben Vereen as the leopard-spotted host—so impressed Charren with its determination to foster creativity among its preschool audience that she praised it in the pages of the Los Angeles Times. It was racially diverse, she said, and tackled subjects (like disabilities) not commonly found in adolescent television.

Charren wasn’t alone. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers both acknowledged Zoobilee as important. So why didn’t more kids watch?

According to Steve Binder, the producer and director who supervised all 65 episodes of the original series, Zoobilee Zoo was conceived by the entertainment division of Hallmark greeting cards for one reason: to win awards. “That was their number one focus,” Binder tells mental_floss. “And we did.”

Zoobilee Zoo was originally a joint project between Hallmark and Mattel. When Mattel bowed out, children’s distributor DIC was brought on board. Binder’s production company was responsible for delivering 65 half-hour episodes, all of them to be completed in the spring and summer of 1985.

“When I got to Hallmark headquarters in Kansas City, the characters looked like theme park people,” Binder says. “I thought they needed to have expressions.” The director lobbied—and got—make-up and prosthetics rather than sports mascot costumes.

Back in Los Angeles, Binder sought out actors with theatrical experience who could sing, dance, and memorize the hundreds of pages of script required for the shoot. For the host, who appeared in wraparound segments, Binder approached well-known performer Ben Vereen: “I had had a relationship with him for years and asked him to be the mayor.” While Vereen was only around for a few weeks, the other actors “had no social life” for the duration of the shoot. “It was like doing a Broadway show every day,” Binder says.

When Zoobilee Zoo premiered on September 22, 1986, Binder was dismayed to find it confined to a too-early 6 a.m. slot in Los Angeles. While that was quickly changed to 7 a.m., it foreshadowed a recurring problem: Zoo bounced around the dial, appearing in the early-morning hours on PBS and local affiliate stations. Those who saw it loved it; those who didn’t had no idea it existed.

“I think we developed a tremendous cult following,” Binder says. “The cast would go to different libraries and perform in character. But when I’d walk into a Hallmark store, there wouldn’t be any merchandise. I found it so odd.”

Strangely, Charren’s endorsement—that the show avoided peddling toys to kids—may have contributed to its premature end. Without Zoobilee merchandise on shelves, awareness was muted. The series aired to modest ratings for years, eventually winding up on the Disney Channel in 1992 before Hallmark (who declined comment) produced 14 additional episodes for home video release in 2000. Though Vereen seems open to a revival, it never quite materialized into what Binder imagined could have been a franchise.

“This was pre-Barney, and we basically had six Barneys,” Binder says. “I once had someone offer to build an entire theme park. Hallmark turned them down. I never understood it.”

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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22 Creepy Cryptids From Around the World

Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.
Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.

According to Merriam-Webster, a cryptid is an animal "that has been claimed to exist but never proven to exist." But as Bigfoot believers and Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts are often quick to point out, it’s pretty difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. Plus, it’s much more fun to indulge in the idea that giant sea monsters and hairy humanoids are roaming the uncharted corners of the planet.

On this episode of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is taking viewers across time and space to unearth legends about lesser-known monsters that, again, haven’t been proven to not exist. Take the Mongolian death worm, a lamprey-like nightmare that supposedly lives in the Gobi Desert and radiates a poison so strong that you could die just by standing near it. If you’re an ill-behaved child or a Catholic who scarfs down steak every Friday during Lent, watch out for the Rougarou, a Louisiana-based werewolf that sniffs out those two demographics.

Learn about more fearsome, fascinating cryptids of all kinds in the video below, and subscribe to the Mental Floss YouTube channel for future episodes of The List Show.