Dogs, horses, cats, and plenty of other animals domesticated right alongside us — and they’ve proven to be versatile laborers capable of everything from providing us with food and protecting our property to controlling pest populations and delivering messages in times of war. But many animals have taken to a work environment that seems quite unconventional: Hollywood.
Animal actors have been entertaining us nearly since the birth of television, while wildlife documentaries have helped open us up to the strange and beautiful symmetry of life in the animal kingdom. There’s a lot of animal TV shows worth seeing, but it can be hard to separate the good from the bad when there’s simply so much content out there. We want to help with that. Our list of the best animal TV shows will narrow things down to a manageable list. We’ll discuss the five best and most popular animal TV shows and the six best wildlife documentaries.
The Best TV Shows Starring Animal Actors
#11: Tiger King — A Trashy Melodrama That Hides Lessons on Animal Cruelty
First Aired: 2020
This documentary about the seedy underbelly of big cat rescues, zoos, and breeding facilities in Florida captured the public imagination thanks to its scandalous murder-for-hire scheme and its colorful cast of characters — but the real story is about how the animals at zoos owned by Joe Exotic and others are being exploited and left to suffer. It’s a story that eventually led to several arrests, but it’s also a sobering reminder of how greed and ambition can turn wild animals into little more than possessions.
#10: Dr. Oakley — Yukon Vet — A Look at Life on the Front Lines
First Aired: 2014-2021
Animal Planet alone has a lot of reality shows about vets, but few are as dramatic as Doctor Oakley. With a practice in the frigid and rural frontiers of northern Canada, just getting to her patients is often a challenge in its own right. It’s a rural and rough region of the world, and she finds herself dealing with everything from dogs and cats to sheep and cows to even wild foxes. This Animal Planet show is a reminder of how much we rely as a species rely on domesticated animals for our survival, especially in the more remote corners of the Earth.
#9: Yellowstone — An Intimate Look at a Perilous Ecosystem
First Aired: 2009
While David Attenborough’s animal TV shows on Netflix and BBC tend to capture a global scope, Yellowstone does something special by documenting a single year in one of the United States‘ most beautiful national parks. Split between the summer and the winter, this series puts in perspective how clever and resilient many animals need to be to survive in an environment with such dramatically different seasons. It’s an environment where the once nearly extinct American bison has somehow managed to find purchase and where prey scarcity forces wolves and bears into regular conflict.
#8: Our Planet — A Love Story to Nature and a Call to Action
First Aired: 2019
First aired on Netflix, Our Planet builds on the principles of Blue Planet and Planet Earth and once again brings David Attenborough along for the trip — although this time it’s focused more explicitly on the impacts that climate change is having on various ecosystems. At once more important to consider and more harrowing to watch, the footage of big cats like tigers, lions, and cheetahs taking down large game like elephants plays more like a desperate struggle against increasingly dire conditions rather than a battle of wills between fierce species.
#7: Blue Planet — An Unparalleled Look at Life Under the Waves
First Aired: 2001, 2017
Although it came first, Blue Planet does for aquatic wildlife what Planet Earth did for the broader scope of life on Earth. And while it doesn’t feature every aquatic animal on the planet, it shows the fascinating diversity of underwater creatures. From the hideous hagfish to the terrifying orca to the playful otter, this series and its sequel demonstrated that life under the waves is equally as diverse, beautiful, and strange as life on land. The same patient camera work allows both existing entries in this popular series to serve as the current standard for underwater documentary film-making.
Working on the documentary was sometimes dangerous, like when a camera crew was attacked by a humpback whale. You can discover more about these leviathans here.
#6: Planet Earth — Pioneering a New Approach to Nature Documentaries
First Aired: 2006, 2016
The five-year production of Planet Earth was the most expensive nature documentary the BBC had ever shot up until that point, but its patient and innovative camera work combined with incredibly modern HD cameras to deliver a look at the natural world that few people had ever seen before. Each of the first series’ 11 episodes was dedicated to a different biome, and it carries us from the rugged mountains of Ethiopia to the deepest caves in Mexico. Planet Earth’s narrative-driven approach contextualized breathtaking photography like a close-up shot of a snow leopard by demonstrating how an ecosystem’s various animals each had a role to play.
#5: Zoo — An Inconsistent But Timely Look at Our Relationship With Nature
First Aired: 1995-1997
Kids of a certain age will remember expressive Jack Russell terrier Wishbone as a friendly and peppy introduction to the world of classical literature, but it does an exceptional job of capturing the eager and curious energy that so typifies the breed. The show’s creator based Wishbone on his terrier. And while a dog named Soccer took the star billing, he shared the role of Wishbone with four other dogs: three for handling stunts and one that was exclusively used in promotional stills. Ironically, Soccer had numerous stunt doubles when it was his acrobatic backflip that convinced the producers to make him the star.
#4: The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin — A New Breed of Wild West Hero
First Aired: 1954-1959
Rin Tin Tin is widely regarded as the first true animal star in Hollywood, although his rise to the top is a testament to the close bondman and dog can share. Lee Duncan was an American soldier in World War I when he saw the puppy who he would raise as Rin Tin Tin among the remains of a battlefield in France. Both Lee and Rin Tin Tin were orphans, and their close friendship developed to the point where Rin Tin Tin learned a range of tricks and gained the attention of movie producers. Not only did it result in one of the most popular series about animals in TV history, but it earned Rin Tin Tin a star on the Hollywood walk of fame.
#3: Mister Ed — A Horse With Precision Comic Timing
First Aired: 1961-1966
Mr. Ed was pitched on the simple concept of a horse that can talk, and it serves as proof that funny animals were popular long before the age of Doge memes and cat videos. And while it’s common knowledge that the production team helped get Mr. Ed’s mouth to move by giving him peanut butter, that’s not doing his acting chops justice. Ed was trained to move his mouth whenever his foot was touched. The horse who played Ed was named Bamboo Harvester, and he continued to fraternize with co-star Alan Young off the set. Young would come to Bamboo Harvester’s ranch to ride him until the horse’s passing in 1971.
#2: Flipper — A Legacy Far Longer Than The Show’s Airtime
First Aired: 1964-1967
Director and writer Ivan Tors’ career was driven by his passion for telling stories about animals and the underwater ecosystem that didn’t rely on violence, but his most fondly remembered creation was undoubtedly Flipper. The titular bottlenose dolphin fulfilled a similar role to Lassie — acting as a helpful assistant and protector for his adopted human family and performing stunt heroics for the camera. Some aspects of the show — like Flipper’s ability to communicate with humans using whistles and clicks — were pure fantasy, but Flipper introduced a whole generation to the wonders of the sea and the intelligence of these aquatic mammals.
#1: Lassie — America’s Quintessential Dog
First Aired: 1954-1973, 1989–1991, 1989-1991, 1997-1999
Lassie is just the simple story of a boy and his loyal and courageous dog, but the relentless devotion of this rough collie struck a chord with both American and international audiences — and it earned America’s most heroic farm dog two decades on the air in addition to a dozen movies and countless piles of toys and merchandise. The stunt work of the dogs and the simplicity of the stories might not seem compelling when framed by the sophistication of modern television, but Lassie remains one of the biggest pet actors in history. Ironically enough, all nine Lassies from the original series were played by male dogs thanks to the fact that female collies shed aggressively when they go into heat.
Next Up: Large Terrier Breeds