'Wild Kratts' exudes animal magnetism

Recently, many Facebook users switched their profile photos to cartoon characters, attempting to somehow raise awareness about child abuse. What was interesting about this is how quickly people did so and how much we love cartoon characters.

Very few people, though, get a chance to see how they would actually look as cartoons. But the Kratt brothers, Martin and Chris, do, and the result is fitting and fun. Their latest show, "Wild Kratts," premiering Monday, Jan. 3, on PBS (check local listings), has them as animated characters. Though some of the whimsical action could occur only in animation, the heart of the show is factual. It represents the best of what PBS kids shows can be -- educational and amusing. Those zany zoologist brothers from New Jersey teach kids about animal behavior.

"The goal for each one is to have an entertaining adventure story," Martin Kratt says. "We have fun facts about the animals, and (viewers) learn a science concept the animal demonstrates."

"No matter what the science concept is, we are talking about it," Chris Kratt adds.

On this show, Chris, the brunet, wears green, and Martin, the blond, wears blue. They travel the world and spotlight different animals. The Kratts wear a "power suit" that allows them to take on the special abilities of the featured animal. They have a brilliant pal, Aviva, a young scientist who invents gadgets for them in each episode so the brothers can get close to animals.

In an upcoming episode about the platypus, Aviva also teaches about hubris and apologizes when she dismisses the foraging abilities of the platypus. She later learns how they sense food is nearby.

The comic relief in this episode is an evil chef who cooks endangered and rare species and wants to serve a platypus egg dish. The Kratt brothers zip through the water with platypus speed. Most impressive, though, is a cartoon that manages to work in the words "monotremes" (egg-laying mammals) and "hubris."

The cartoon aspect may leave older kids and adults rolling their eyes, but it's not aimed at those who have developed a cynical streak. It's for 6- to 8-year-olds who still find it wondrous that platypuses can dive for food and find crawfish even though their nostrils, eyes and ears are closed.

The Kratt brothers aspire to bring home to viewers that every species exhibits some fascinating behavior. And these brothers, three years apart and forever enthused about all things wild, genuinely get excited as they talk about eels, geckos and spiders in rapid succession.

"Electric eels have four batterylike organs in their body," Chris says, "When the circuit is completed, they set off electricity."

"The gecko can hang from one toe," Martin says. "And there are scientists trying to develop gecko boots and gecko gloves."

"Scientists have been studying spider silk for years," Chris adds. "They can't replicate it."

While current scientists work at that, the brothers work at sparking interest in a new generation of scientists. For kids fascinated by animals, this show is a must.

"When kids watch TV, they are learning something," Martin says. "We are taking a classic adventure format and setting it in this world. Kids are learning real things. When kids are watching, they are learning -- it's what they are learning."

The premiere episode, "Mom of a Croc," has Martin and Chris trying to prove to Aviva that crocodiles are not all evil. Aviva invents a disguise for them -- they pretend to be eggs (remember, this is a cartoon) -- and they get inside a crocodile nest to see how the young develop.

The episodes include the wildlife footage on which the Kratt brothers pride themselves. Over the years, they have made more than 140 episodes for their different shows: "Zoboomafoo," "Kratts' Creatures" and "Kratt Bros. Be the Creature."

Kids all over the world recognize them, and they happily recall a boy in an airport in Ecuador who approached them. What kids sense with the Kratts is that they are enthusiastic learners. The Kratt brothers have traveled the world studying animals.

"Our overriding message is to introduce kids to animals and try to get them excited about wildlife and nature," Martin says. "It is important to have exposure when young and when their minds are open."

Both brothers still have plenty of places they want to visit to see certain species. Chris wants to head to Antarctica to see emperor penguins and leopard seals, and Martin wants to visit China. Both paused, mulling over whether there are any animals they're afraid of.

"We don't have to be afraid of animals," Martin says. "We respect them and give them space. I wouldn't run around in front of a pride of lions in Africa."