At her small exotic petting zoo outside Pinetops, about 70 miles east of Raleigh, Bobbie Jo Abrams lovingly tends to about 80 animals with the care and attention of a doting mother. Her eclectic menagerie includes a zebra, a lemur, a camel, a sloth, kangaroos (she wore them in a fake pouch and bottle fed them as babies), a wallaby, llamas, an umbrella cockatoo and a gray wolf.
On Tuesday (May 22), Abrams' whole furry family, along with her various two-legged kin and one very outspoken nanny, will go national, thanks to the new TLC series, "Our Wild Life."
Adding "TV star" to her "zookeeper" resume all happened pretty fast, Abrams told us in an interview this week.
It was her adorable baby wallaby, Boomer, frolicking on the beach at Oak Island, that landed her on the TLC radar. Someone took a video, it went viral, and the Star-News in Wilmington wrote an article. TLC shot a pilot, and it got picked up almost immediately. The crew then came back for seven weeks this past March to film five more episodes.
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"It's something we had no idea we would do," she said. "But we did it, and it was funny and cute for the family."
Animals roam the home
One of the main pegs for the show is the fact that Abrams allows many of those animals to come inside the family's home. Some animals are inside the house in real life, she said, particularly as babies. But it's a little exaggerated on the show — and that worries her a tiny bit.
"Will people think, 'Oh my gosh, is this lady an animal hoarder? Are there really mounds of dookie out the back door? Are they living in these conditions?' It’s not like that," she said. "That’s some of the stuff that’s over the top. Like the goat doesn't come in (except when he was a baby, and then he wore diapers). The pigs are potty-trained. A lot of them do start out as babies in the house. As they get older and they are not potty-trained, trust me, they get evicted. ... But in all honestly they do start out in the house as babies — and there’s a lot of cleaning."
As cute and cuddly as the little joeys are, snoozing on Abrams' lap like babies, the goal is always to get them outside with the other animals.
"There’s always that independence you’re pushing, just like with your own kids," Abrams said. "You’re pushing independence and it’s all out of love. In the beginning, a baby kangaroo can’t acclimate to the cold, I have to wear it on me and bottle feed every four hours. But after that first year, when it’s weaned from the pouch and the milk bottle, it’s appropriate for that baby to go out. And they do thrive. They’re on their own, they’re loving grazing and hopping and running."
Abrams said the animals who stay inside the most are the birds, the sloth and the lemur. Zoomy the lemur, which their nanny Naa Naa (more on her later) calls "the jumping monkey," has a big cage inside and a large outside area.
And of course, there's Coco, the profanity-spewing umbrella cockatoo.
"If I’m in the bathroom, Coco is in the bathroom," she said. "If I’m washing dishes in the kitchen, Coco’s in the kitchen. You find out what they’re like and they hang out like a family member."
Even though some people might object to so many animals in the house (I promise, we'll get to Naa Naa soon), Abrams said it's often an important element in socializing the animal and learning its personality.
"You have to have that time to know one another," she said. "If you didn’t, you don’t know what to do with them because you don’t know them."
A star is born
Naa Naa is the Abrams' son Jaxon's nanny, and she'll likely be the breakout star of "Our Wild Life."
Naa Naa, who won a $200,000 lottery a few years ago but won't quit because she loves Jaxon, is strongly opposed to having the animals in the house, and she isn't shy about saying so.
"Naa Naa is like the real Madea," Abrams said. "She is truly like that. We sneak and hide animals around her. I pay her to tell me what to do. She’s like our mama."
When daughter Hali brought Coco home from a pet store going out of business, the family learned that the bird was prone to dropping f-bombs pretty regularly. In the first episode, we see Naa Naa attempt to deprogram the "devil bird" by singing her gospel songs and encouraging the bird to say "praise Jesus" instead of "(F-bomb) it." When Coco backslides, Naa Naa scolds her, "Rebuke that devil!"
Naa Naa also chastises Bobbie Jo's husband, Jerry, for not standing up to Bobbie Jo when she wants to add more animals. She's constantly telling him to "man up" and offering him dresses to wear. She tells Jerry all it takes from Bobbie Jo is the "kiss of pets" and he caves. Jerry doesn't disagree.
In the series premiere, when Abrams introduces the idea of adding the gray wolf-malamute mix Axl Rose to the family, Naa Naa loses it. (The rest of the family — daughter Kasi rounds out the three human children — likewise freaked out.)
Abrams said Naa Naa has since warmed up to the wolf.
"She got to where she was absolutely fine with Axl," Abrams said. "But in the beginning she acted like he was going to eat her and they were going to come take my kids."
Abrams promises that Axl — rescued when his previous family moved and could not transport him across state lines — has never been aggressive to people or other animals. And on the day we spoke, she said they had just finished building him a faux cave with a waterfall.
How it all started
Jerry Abrams helps run the Abrams restaurant chain (you're probably familiar with their famous cheese biscuits). Bobbie Jo started building her zoo about six years ago, when the catering and entertainment branch of the business had an emergency need for a petting zoo.
“I had ducks in the bathroom and crates all over the house,” she said. "It was great and fun — and I made money."
Abrams started researching animals — she fell in love with the kangaroos — and tapped into animal networks. She got licensed by the USDA, and that led to even more animals, many of them with special needs. She has a three-legged turtle, a kangaroo missing two fingers, and an alpaca that arrived severely malnourished.
"I got on the radar for rescues, and that was a huge blessing because when that happened, then I started getting calls and I got my baby camel," she said. "I got a couple of kangaroos that way. ... With exotic breeders, if the animal isn’t perfect, that’s the first one they get rid of. And some of them have special needs — and they’re amazing."
No more room at the inn
Abrams is a little worried that once the show airs, people may see her small zoo as a dumping ground for unwanted animals. But really, she's already accustomed to saying "no" because the family's 10-acre property can only accommodate so much.
"I am at the point where my property is small and we’re full and we’re not going to overfill," she said. "These animals will live with me the rest of their lives, so I can’t constantly take things and the animals not be cared for.
"You get a reputation," she continued. "We had a lot of dogs that got left. And we always got a lot of calls about pigs. But I just started being in my mind like my grandma told me when I was a little girl: 'You didn’t create this problem, you don’t have to fix it. Quit feeling like you’ve got to save everybody.'"
Want to touch a kangaroo?
If the idea of petting a lemur or touching a kangaroo is more than you can resist, Abrams' zoo is there for you. The appeal of It's a Zoo Life, which is open by appointment only, is that you don't just see zebras and kangaroos and lemurs from a distance, you can actually interact with them.
"I want (visitors) to know we’re small, but we have amazing animals and they’re exotic and they’re super socialized, so you can have encounters and touch them and get pictures with them," Abrams said.
And Abrams will make sure that whoever gives the tour will be sure to tell you exactly how to pet Joey, the "ornery" zebra: from the mohawk down and not around his mouth "because he's fast and he's nippy."
Watch "Our Wild Life" and visit It's a Zoo Life
▪ "Our Wild Life" premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday, May 22, on TLC.
▪ It's a Zoo Life is at 4313 NC Hwy 42, Macclesfield, N.C. Visit itsazoolife.com for details on ticket prices and appointments.