February 12, 2001 12:00 PM

Doctor Dolittle has nothing on Martin and Chris Kratt. These brothers don’t just talk to the animals—they emulate them. “That’s our life,” says Martin. “When we see hyenas sticking their heads in the mud, we do too.”

Martin, 35, and Chris, 31, the joined-at-the-hip creators of PBS’s Zoboomafoo, the zany educational wildlife series for preschoolers, have also swum with sea turtles, climbed trees with sloths and butted (helmeted) heads with a ram. It is such antics that keep Zoboomafoo (a name the brothers coined for their goofy lemur-puppet co-host) among PBS’s Top 10-rated children’s programs. The half-hour show features an ark-load of creatures, from cats and dogs to sheep and tigers, with whom the sincerely corny Kratts commune nose-to-snout…or trunk…or muzzle.

You can’t fake enthusiasm like that. “The guys are such bad actors, they can only play their real selves,” says Susan McLennan, executive director for Kratt Brothers Company, their production unit. It’s a nonact that kids eat up, whether through Zoboomafoo; Kratts’ Creatures, the brothers’ PBS program for children over 6; their interactive Web site krattbrothers.com books (including Creatures in Crisis and Where’re the Bears?); or Kratt Brothers Creature Heroes, a nonprofit group that enlists kids in conservation efforts.

“Our show is really turning a lot of kids on to creature adventuring,” says Chris, “so they are going on adventures out in their yards.”

Which is where the guys got their own start, in Warren Township, N.J., about 30 miles outside Manhattan, as the oldest and youngest of four children of William Kratt and his wife, Linda. Summer camping trips and the NBC show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom stoked their passion, which is a bit of a mystery to their mother. “I wouldn’t say we were particularly into animals,” says Linda, 60, who handles the brothers’ fan mail and lives in Warren with William, 72, a harmonica-factory owner. “Bill’s grandfather was a veterinarian, so it may be in the genes.”

DNA clearly has something to do with the brothers’ near-identical career trajectories. Though separated by four years, Martin and Chris were equally fascinated with fauna, their paths diverging slightly when Martin went to Duke University to study zoology and Chris majored in biology at Minnesota’s Carleton College. But after Martin graduated, he and Chris (taking off his sophomore fall semester) grabbed a video camera and embarked on a six-month trip through Costa Rica, where Martin was working as a research assistant. “When we were kids, there had never been enough books, magazines, TV shows about animals,” says Martin, “so we decided, ‘Why don’t we make one?’ ”

After editing sessions on the family VCR, they showed their amateur video to school assemblies and then to PBS, which gave it the thumbs-up. Kratts’ Creatures first aired in 1996; Zoboomafoo followed in 1999.

In search of four-legged talent, the Kratts are constantly traveling to exotic locales such as Madagascar, Peru and Australia—leaving them little time to spend in their “practically vacant” separate homes, across the state from each other in northern Vermont. Until recently their only companions were Martin’s Labrador retriever Wyatt and Chris’s mutt Kali. But last year both Kratts got married—Martin to food stylist Laura Wilkinson, 31 (they’re expecting their first child this summer), and Chris to interior decorator Tania Armstrong, 32. Naturally creatures played a role: Wyatt was a guest at Martin and Laura’s Vermont ceremony, while 15 lions and 50 elephants looked on as Chris and Tania tied the knot in Botswana.

These days the wives tag along on some of their mates’ trips, though as her due date nears, Laura will probably stay closer to home—and her husband will have a new, very important job. “Given Martin’s history picking names like Zoboomafoo, I agreed to let him pick the baby’s,” says his wife. “The middle name!”

Elizabeth O’Brien

Eric Francis in Underhill, Vt.

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