Chris Kratt ’92 in Wild Kratts Live

Kratts Gone Wild

By Thomas Rozwadowski
Chris Kratt ’92 has spent his life going on fantastic adventures—and you and your kids are invited to go along.

Following a sold-out performance of Wild Kratts Live at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, about 100 superfans stir in line for a VIP meet-and-greet with the show’s stars: Chris Kratt ’92 and his brother and costar, Martin Kratt.

Dressed in an unassuming green sweater and khaki shorts—an ensemble that makes him look exactly like his animated alter ego on a nearby Wild Kratts poster—Chris plops down in a chair to get the autograph procession rolling.

“What’s your favorite animal?” Chris asks a young boy.

“Woodpecker and orangutan!” the boy shouts back.

Parents take pictures with their phones, and one mother tells Chris that her preteen daughter wears a Carleton T-shirt because of him.

“Say creatures!” Chris says, smiling wide before every photo.

Yeah, he’s definitely done this before.

Chris Kratt ’92 in Wild Kratts LiveChris Kratt ’92 in Wild Kratts Live Onscreen and onstage, the Kratt brothers transform into superheroes by donning elaborate “creature power” vests that allow them to perform the same physical feats as a particular animal. But in the VIP area of the Orpheum, Chris doesn’t need any tricks to appear larger than life. He’s happiest being himself—an enthusiastic nature lover, global ambassador for wildlife, father to two young boys—and that’s what resonates with his fans. To them, he’s always a superhero.

Chris traces his adventuring career to childhood vacations in Vermont. His parents bought a cheap plot of land, and every summer the Kratt clan would park its pop-up trailer in the same remote field where nature became a blank canvas for their imaginations. “No TV. No video games. There was nothing to do but create adventures,” Chris says. “So we’d walk with our St. Bernard and make up games while we looked for animals. Everything came from natural curiosity.”

After his freshman year at Carleton, Chris took a semester off and traveled with Martin to Costa Rica, where they filmed the nesting of olive ridley sea turtles, an annual event that sees thousands of turtles travel onto a one-kilometer beach to lay eggs. “We figured other people might want to see this,” says Chris. “But instead of staying behind the camera, we decided to narrate our excitement. We talked to the camera while we were waiting for the turtles to arrive. It was everything we’d been doing as kids—we were going on an adventure!”

Mugging for the camera is hardly a novelty in the age of smartphones and YouTube, but in the late 1980s, hauling a bulky camcorder into the wilderness was pioneering work. Chris grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on Sunday nights, but blue-chip documentaries—even if kids loved them—weren’t being made for kids. That’s where the Kratt brothers wanted to be different. “Kids like animals more than anybody,” says Chris. “We always thought there should be something designed for kids from the start.”

Back at Carleton, Chris used school fellowships and grants to continue his travels and video work in the field. He and Martin then edited the footage on a VCR to produce short, low-budget films, which they showed at school assemblies when Chris was home in New Jersey. At the outset, Chris and Martin aspired only to make short films and get feedback directly from kids. Their instincts were right: children loved their narrated adventures. Once the Kratt brothers began testing the waters for bigger opportunities, however, they found that television and festival producers weren’t interested in their product.

“No one was doing host-driven wildlife shows for kids. So we’d get rejection letters saying, ‘This is frivolous,’ ” says Chris. “That was discouraging, but we’d always say, ‘Well, kids like to have fun. Isn’t it supposed to be frivolous?’ ”

Chris received a Watson Fellowship in 1993 and explored the Peruvian Amazon to make his breakthrough film, Amazon Adventure. The head of Maryland Public Television remembered watching with his son a previous Kratt-produced film, Wild Ponies! He was so impressed by the Amazon footage that he offered the Kratts use of his production facilities. The newly polished film earned top children’s honors at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival (1993), an award voted on by a kids’ jury. Amazon Adventure gave them the credibility they needed, and the green light for their first show, Kratts’ Creatures, which began airing on PBS in 1996.

Today, the Kratt brothers’ empire is based in Ottawa, and Chris and Martin take on nature as animated characters. With more than 200 episodes of television spread across four shows—Kratts’ Creatures (1996), Zoboomafoo (1999–2001), Be the Creature (2003–2004), and now Wild Kratts—the concept of marrying nature to education hasn’t changed. But with an animated show, Chris and Martin can go on bolder, bigger adventures (think giant squid versus sperm whale big) or add “fantastical” script elements like creature power suits or shrinking devices. They’ve also extended the Kratt brand to books, backpacks, video games, Halloween costumes, action figures—you name it.

“Writing an animated series is a natural progression for us,” Chris says of Wild Kratts, which will celebrate its fifth season this year. “We still look at animals as characters and friends rather than as scientific objects. But adding creature powers has allowed us to take the education further.”

While a nationally touring live adaptation of a cartoon would seem to be a new wrinkle, it’s actually a throwback to their humble beginnings. School auditoriums and classrooms are where Chris and Martin first tested their performance chops as college students. Now that they are known commodities with a built-in fan base, the fun is amplified.

Chris and Martin jump and joke, tumble and tease like seasoned pros. The live show is a full exercise regimen complete with several costume changes and over-the-top physical comedy. Yet even with all the bells and whistles of a supersized stage production, the heart of a Kratt show is the reverberating energy from the audience. When Chris rushes across the stage looking for an answer to a Wild Kratts problem, he plays up the drama for all it’s worth. And the audience of full-throated kids is with him all the way.

“Our mission has always been simple,” says Chris. “We want to share our excitement about the natural world and instill enthusiasm. It means everything to us to hear that kids are learning more about animals and going on their own creature adventures because of us. We want to inspire them to remain invested in science and do great things in the world.” 

Chris Kratt ’92 in Wild Kratts LiveChris Kratt ’92 in Wild Kratts Live Memorable Moments

Chris Kratt ’92 has never been a guy who catches a snake just for the fun of it. While Chris and his brother, Martin, have been professional adventurers for more than 20 years, getting close to animals doesn’t mean disrupting their natural environments or encroaching on their space for the sake of an adrenaline rush.

“We tell kids, ‘Go out and have an adventure, but give animals their space,’ ” says Chris. That said, the Kratts have had plenty of “wow” moments in the wild. Here are some of Chris’s favorites:

Swimming with wild spotted dolphins in the Bahamas: “These aren’t trained dolphins, so you can’t just jump in the water and swim with them. They have to come to you. Seeing them become so curious about you, copying your moves, lets you experience their intelligence up close. If we twirled, they twirled. We were almost like synchronized swimmers.”

Comforting an orphaned chimp in Kenya: “A really young chimp sat on an ant hill, and she jumped up, screaming and howling, and rushed right into my arms. She pointed to her backside, and I saw the ants biting her, so I began brushing them off. She eventually relaxed and everything was fine. It was almost like your little sister coming to you for comfort. Those emotions and feelings are very real with animals.”

Watching lions take down elephants in Africa: “Our series Be the Creature was about trying to live with an animal as much as we could, following them 24–7. We did an episode with a pride of lions that was hunting elephants. That’s not very common, but this was a big pride with a lot of males, and so they had the strength to take down an elephant. We saw them take down elephants several times over the course of three weeks. That was rough. The footage was too harsh to show on TV, but it’s how nature works. It’s a fight for survival, and animals take energy from other animals.”

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