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Scott D. Pierce: Putting 'Wild' in 'Life'

Andrew St. John and a lion cub
Andrew St. John and a lion cub
David Bloomer, The CW

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — It's not exactly lions and tigers and bears, oh my, but there are lots of animals on the new CW family drama "Life Is Wild."

An Americanization of the British series "Wild at Heart," the show centers on teenager Katie Clarke (Leah Pipes), who is not happy with her father, Danny (D.W. Moffett). In Sunday's premiere (7 p.m., Ch. 30), Danny, a veterinarian, decides that his family is losing its way in New York City, so he packs them all off to South Africa. (And the series shoots on location in South Africa.)

The family is a bit "Brady Bunch"-ish. Danny has two kids — Katie and 11-year-old Chase (K'Sun Ray). He has remarried after the death of his first wife, and current wife Jo (Stephanie Niznik) is a high-powered divorce attorney. She has two kids of her own, rebellious teenager Jess (Andrew St. John) and 7-year-old Mia (Mary Matilyn Mouser). (Their father, a white-collar criminal, is in prison.)

Danny packs them off to a broken-down lodge owned by his first wife's father, Art (David Butler). And there's plenty of family drama as the kids try to adjust to their new surroundings — as well as at least some interaction with South African locals.

Not to mention interaction with the local wildlife. The show's main location is a 1,500-acre farm filled with lions, elephants, hippos, giraffes, impalas, wildebeests, zebras and more. "It's this amazing — you walk from the set to lunch and you pass zebra or wildebeest," said executive producer Michael Rauch. "It's just an incredible experience

"And we basically put the animal in the script that we want. Find out if that animal would work in a scene. And if it's scheduled to be the giraffe in the yard at 4 o'clock on Thursday, at about 3:55 the giraffe walks up, waits for the scene to be ready. We call action. The giraffe walks in the background, and we do it again. It's really amazing."

Working with animals has, for the most part, been sort of fun for the actors. "The cheetah is particularly friendly," said Moffett. "That was the first animal I met in the animal orientation. And he purrs. And he's just like a big cat. A lot more relaxed than (the lion cub) can be sometimes."

The lion cub can be a bit of a problem. "I had my shorts pulled down by this tiger thing over there (referring to a lion cub) whilst we were sort of having orientation," said Calvin Goldspink, who co-stars as Oliver Banks, a rather reckless teenager whose family owns a successful tourist lodge near Art's. "I was wearing kind of, like, loose Nike shorts, and it clawed me and pulled my pants down.

"It's not life-threatening, though, so it's OK," he joked.

And Moffett said he has learned to be cautious. "I went by a zebra the other day, and he kicked another zebra so hard the thing fell over. And I'm just like — OK, staying away from the zebras."

Rauch made it a point to tell critics that "whenever we shoot with animals, the animal wranglers are right there. And they are on top of it."

It's the wranglers who decide when animals can work and when they can't, and pains are taken to make sure the animals are kept comfortable.

"We ... protect the actors from the animals and the animals from the work," he said.