Since the flagship show debuted in 1990, Dick Wolf's Law & Order franchise has fully saturated the American airwaves. The original Law & Order and the Law & Order: Criminal Intent spinoff ended in 2010 and 2011, respectively, but both appear in cable syndication at all hours. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, now in its 19th year on NBC, focuses on a fictional New York Police Department sex crimes unit. Mariska Hargitay has played the role of Detective (now Lieutenant) Olivia Benson since its debut; for the show's first 12 seasons, she partnered with Christopher Meloni's Detective Elliot Stabler.
Each series in the franchise has its fans, but SVU's cult following is particularly devoted. The show debuted in 1999, just as online television fandom was coming into its own—a year after the debut of the TV recap site that eventually became Television Without Pity and a few months after the debut of the blogging site LiveJournal. A significant contingent of SVU fans bickered about the (fairly tame) on-screen sexual tension between Benson and Stabler and wrote thousands of words of alternative fan fiction stories that imagined the pair in compromising positions of all sorts.
The Law & Order "ripped from the headlines" formula combines true-crime sensationalism with issue-of-the-week social commentary for plots packed with humor, pathos, and a little do-gooder piety. "Wildlife," a 2008 episode about an international animal-trafficking ring, is particularly beloved for its ludicrous twists and turns, a heartwarming climactic scene, and the fodder it provided for Benson/Stabler shippers everywhere. In 2009, "Wildlife" garnered the show a nomination for the Humane Society's Genesis Awards, given annually to media professionals who raise public awareness of animal issues.
Pacific Standard spoke with three Law & Order: SVU alumni—and with the animal talent agency that the series often uses—about the production of the episode. (Hargitay declined an interview through a representative, and Meloni did not respond to an interview request.) Interviews have been edited and condensed.
Mick Betancourt, writer: One of the things that [Executive Producer] Neal [Baer] did was always try to fold a social or ethical issue into each episode, so that was kind of the spine.
Neal Baer, producer: I had done some research that showed that drug trafficking and animal trafficking and human trafficking were three of the most lucrative ways that people made money around the world, and I was shocked because I did not know, really, the extent to which animal trafficking was such a huge and profound problem across the world. People certainly know about elephant ivory, but they may not know about the trafficking of primates, and exotic birds, and all kinds of other animals that people collect. It's really amazing and daunting and I wanted to bring that out.
Betancourt: Neal said: "Try to figure out a way to fold this into the world of SVU. Why would it be a Special Victims case?" That was how the story originated. I was a younger writer on the staff, I might have been a story editor when I wrote that, so there were people that had already been on the show for eight or nine years who were all co-executive producers, and Judi McCreary, who's a phenomenal writer ... I'm nervous, I'm new to television writing, and she just peeks her head in my office and says: "Betancourt! Motherfuckin' BEARS?" and storms off down the hall.
The episode opens with detectives Stabler and Benson at the scene of a murder where the victim is found with a dead bird in her purse and appears to have been mauled by a tiger. Various clues lead them through New York's nightclub scene to the tiger's owner, hip-hop artist Gots Money (Big Boi), who introduces them to the smugglers. Later in the episode, Gots Money is killed by a hyena that also eats his bling.
Betancourt: At that time in the world of hip-hop, owning exotic animals was a big thing, so I thought that was an organic way into the world. [Editor's Note: In May of 2008, a white tiger brought in to appear in a Rick Ross video viciously attacked his handler.] Some of the stuff doesn't seem as topical when you watch it in reruns years later, but, you know.
Baer: Of course I remember [the episode]. That's the one where Mariska and Chris pretended they were married. That was the big tease for our audience. [Editor's Note: They later went with a scenario in which Benson pretends to be a sex worker and Stabler her client.]
Betancourt: I wanted to really speak to the Eliott and Olivia shippers, all the people writing fan fiction about Benson and Stabler getting together, and I thought, "Well, how can I do that?" Everybody that's ever wanted to see them kiss—I'm going to take that up a notch.
Detective Stabler poses as a dirty U.S. Customs agent who offers to help the traffickers get their quarry through the international terminal at JFK Airport in exchange for a cut of the profits. They plan to butcher a critically endangered gibbon and "whittle down the breastbone into the most expensive chopsticks money can buy." But his cover is almost blown when the ringleader unexpectedly finds him consulting with Detective Benson.
Betancourt: I'm going to put them, like, half-naked, like they were just making love to prove to the smuggler that they were a real couple—I wanted it to hit the deep fandom on a couple levels. I wanted it to surround and sort of insulate the high concept of the animal smuggling.
Baer: I thought that was genius.
Peter Leto, director: Initially my reaction was, Are you out of your mind? I had eight days, basically, to prepare casting, locations, props, and, in this case, many, many, many animals to be a part of this episode. My [animal-wrangling] duties had been relegated to the occasional dog and once in a great while a cat, but never anything like that. There were so many different animals from hyenas to tigers and then....
Betancourt: When you go into the warehouse, there are wolves, bears....
Leto: ...you get into the actual warehouse of this animal smuggler, everything from snakes to bears to turtles. The hyenas were definitely frightening—just because the way they would look at you.
Dann Florek, actor: Hyenas can eat tin cans and stuff, that's why in the story [criminals] were using them: because they would eat the evidence. They would eat a person. They also had a liger, which I had never—a lion and tiger!
Leto: It was literally a zoo on wheels that was brought to us. It was just incredible.
Babette Corelli, trainer, Dawn Animal Agency: [My family's agency has] done Law and Order since the conception of the show, and this branch of it, SVU—we did all those too. All of the animals you saw on the set were ours.
Betancourt: At the time, that was the most expensive episode in the history of the Law & Order: SVU franchise.
Baer: We shot at Kennedy too—at JFK.
Betancourt: That scene had 200 extras. ["Wildlife" is] a fun, kind of way-out-on-Jupiter episode of SVU. I think it was Big Boi's acting debut outside of his own videos and some sketch stuff. [We] had great actors from The Wire.
Baer: People have so many ingenious and dangerous ways of smuggling animals. We had found a story where someone tried to smuggle a gibbon in a big ball.
Corelli: I knew a guy back when I was in my 20s who was an animal importer. Basketballs were a good one. Carry them on, put them in the overhead, knock 'em out. Twenty percent lived.
Leto: We were very faithful to all laws and regulations we needed to follow in terms of their care.
Corelli: So they needed to have a gibbon. I did not have one at the time, and Kimba came to my attention from a breeder in Florida. [Kimba's first owner] had dumped him and they were going to send him to a breeding colony in South America. The owner was very, very rich—travels the world to see animals in their natural state. She went to Borneo and saw the white-handed gibbons in colonies. If you saw them in their natural state, why in God's name would you want one in your house? Having more money than God and no common sense, she found one [with this breeder in Florida]. Primates in the first seven months of their lives are adorable little Steiff toys. You see them, you diaper them, you put them on a counter, and they sit there going Ooh ooh ooh. Between seven and 10 months, they start turning into primates. She kept him through the formative stage when he was impressionable, and then she dumped him. And that was the worst thing she could have done for him.
Baer: The way we treat animals signifies the way we treat each other too, and often we're great with our pets but we don't think about the animals at large in the world—losing their environment, encroaching on their habitats, things like that.
Corelli: A human-raised white-handed gibbon going to a breeding colony would have been killed. He was not adapted. He could not go into a colony because he had no education, he didn't know the rules on how to be in a colony, and they would have killed him just because he was an asshole. Environment really makes or changes an animal. He should never have been sold to this woman. I should never even have gotten him, but he had to go someplace.
Betancourt: That was the only monkey we could find.
Corelli: The show basically paid for him because they wanted him so bad. So I got involved and got him as a rescue. We said, "We don't really want him, but when we get him he will stay with us 'til the day he dies." Besides animal talent, we are an animal sanctuary and rescue. We have a lot of animals that have been rescued that have one [film or television] job or never do a job and live here for the rest of their lives. We've got an elephant we got during the Vietnam War, who did one job in her lifetime and she's 50; she's like the gray sister. If my mother had a choice of us or her, we'd be out the fuckin' door. Pardon me. Anyway, back to Kimba.
Betancourt: Oddly enough, and this is going to be disappointing for your piece, they say never work with animals or children, because they're the most volatile when you're producing anything live or filming anything, but everything moved very smoothly and effectively and professionally.
Corelli: For film they caught him just right. He was adorable, but he was just at the phase of becoming a monster. But because he was in a new environment, he still was like a Steiff toy. He made little faces and little noises and was adorable and he just wanted to be held. If he'd been more comfortable, he would have been a little beast. At home, he was a brat.
In the episode's final act, the SVU squad raids the smugglers' warehouse. Chaos ensues as the detectives—including Stabler, who had been shot earlier in the episode—bust some perps. A suspect fleeing the scene tosses a basketball to Captain Donald Cragen (Dann Florek), who calls out, "The monkey is OK!" as the endangered gibbon pops out and throws its arms around his neck.
Leto: The owners of the gibbon had rehearsed with this oversized basketball, I don't know if this was apparent to the audience because in the earlier scene it was a regular-sized basketball that we didn't reveal anything within, but the basketball that Kimba was in was an oversized prop.
Corelli: We had to teach Kimba to stay in the ball for like 30 seconds. Massive rewards when he stayed in and then popped out. Made a big fuss afterward and gave him cookies and cheese and little treats.
Florek: I had three play dates with Kimba. I had to get to know him so he would trust me. So they brought him over [to] the dressing room and the trainers were there. He was so little, his body was tiny but his arms were almost as long as mine. It was really sweet because he had to wear little Garanimal underpants, you know, because he would just poop anywhere, being a monkey—I'm sorry, a white-crested baby gibbon. [Editor's Note: This was the writers' fictional stand-in for the critically endangered black-crested gibbon. Kimba is a white-handed gibbon.]
Corelli: At that point I was able to give him to strangers because it was a new environment so he'd behave himself. If I put him on somebody he knew it was safe. He would never go to a stranger by himself, that was not done, but in a new environment he didn't know if they would eat him or not.
Florek: His favorite treat was gummy bears, so they gave me some and when he did a good thing I could give him a gummy bear. When we were having our playdates, I had my glasses on, and he would steal my glasses. He would rip them off and hold them or throw them across the room. Another thing he liked to do was reach out and slap my head. Not hard, I think he thought it was funny, the hairless human. [The trainers] told me: "You're being a little bit of a wuss. If he grabs you or hits you, you have to tell him no, just like you would your dog." I felt like, I can't yell at the monkey. But we figured it out. He was very very good.
Betancourt: [Florek's] never done anything like that in his entire life....
Florek: Years ago, I did a pilot for a TV show that was called Doctors Wilde, and I played the owner of the zoo, or the zoo manager, or something like that. I had to have a scorpion crawl up my suit.
Betancourt: ...the cameras are rolling, and he has to open a basketball and a monkey's gonna crawl out of it, it may or may not be furious from being in the basketball....
Corelli: [Kimba] wasn't happy about it but he wasn't upset about it either. He wanted to please his family, he wanted to make his mom happy. This pleased my sister, my mother, and myself, the three-female hierarchy in the unit. [Editor's Note: Corelli's mother, Bunny Brook, founded the agency with her sister Barbara in 1959.]
Florek: They threw the real basketball to me, then they cut and they handed me the fake basketball, and I opened it up. Kimba and I had bonded, but none of us knew what was going to happen. But then the basketball opened and he looked up at me and his little arms went around me, I said, We're good. And it was so sweet. Honestly I think I started crying, the script person started crying, and then he pooped on me so we had to do another take.
Leto: I didn't want to put any stress on the animal whatsoever, even though Kimba seemed to be a veteran at what it was doing, and it came out and just—and there it was, just hugged Dan on that second take, and I said, "Wow, that's the one, you can't get any better than that."
Betancourt: When the cameras were done, [Florek] was just kind of walking around and it was like around his neck hugging him. Oddly enough, along with the monkey in the basketball, that scene with [Chris Meloni] shirtless kind of melted the Internet that week.
Baer: I wish I had been on the set, but no. I didn't get to meet the monkey. But I did meet a kangaroo on ER.
Leto: I did get to hug the monkey and it was definitely a highlight of my career.
Florek: I can't remember why, but I got to see him one more time [after that]—I can't remember if they were doing something else and they were nearby, and I got to visit him? And he was very sweet. It was like he remembered me.
Corelli: Now Kimba lives in the Sanctuary for Animals in Westtown, New York. He was able to support other animals with the money he brought in. He also did an episode of 30 Rock, he was the one who wore the mariachi outfit in the casino. The last thing he did was for a student film, and we did it at the college in Manhattan, and he was in a cage in a laboratory—because I will not work him outside with anyone because I cannot trust him with anyone but me. I raised him, but I didn't raise him from infancy. Once they've bitten people and gotten away with it, you can never trust them. I have to watch him. He's sneaky. So much nonsense.
Betancourt: I would say that the monkey is the Special Victim, and I would say that the monkey is the special light. All of these smuggled animals are victims, and if we pulled that off as well and people got that, then I think the story was executed effectively.
Corelli: [Kimba] really was a victim. He's an interesting animal—he could have had such a better life.
Florek: All the animals [in that episode] were victims, the Special Victims. I guess my special victim was Kimba.