- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 4, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) - Animal Planet has a menagerie of new shows for the season ahead that promise real-life drama, monstrous mystery, unusual human creatures and a new breed of cute.

Also look for the network’s first competition show, with the provocative title “Top Hookers.” (Relax. It deals with fishing.)

The slate of new programming, most of which will launch next year, is scheduled for unveiling to advertisers Thursday in New York at the upfront presentation of parent company Discovery Communications.

The lineup builds on Animal Planet’s brand strategy of “Surprisingly Human,” said Marjorie Kaplan, the channel’s president and general manager.

“Animal Planet is still what you think we are _ but it’s bigger, better, funnier and louder,” she explained during an interview last week. Viewers have responded, boosting the channel’s average audience in the age 25-54 demographic by 25 percent, to nearly 300,000, in the past year.

Building on its hit “Whale Wars,” the network plans to introduce “Rhino Wars,” which follows a team of former U.S. Special Forces as they hunt down gangs of rhino poachers in South Africa whose greed threatens to reduce to near extinction the rhino population.

A new adventure series, “The Hunger,” explores the ingenious (and often extreme) methods used by disparate world cultures to find, capture or cultivate food. Its host is survivalist Guy Grieve.

“Glory Hounds” stars the military working dogs that serve beside their human partners in Iraq and Afghanistan. From tracking insurgents to sniffing out explosives, these heroic canines are an integral component of the armed forces _ and share deep emotional bonds with their human companions.

Watch anglers corral 300-pound sharks using only women’s pantyhose. Watch them hunt for massive bass from a speeding kayak in whitewater rapids. On “Fish America,” outdoorsman and pro wrestler “Showtime” Eric Young gets a line on some of the most creative, unexpected and dangerous fishing practices across the country. It is scheduled to air this summer.

Fishing is also the game on “Top Hooker,” which splits 10 expert anglers into two teams for an eight-week competition made up of 24 wildly varied challenges.

Animal Planet’s frightening success with such series as “River Monsters,” “Finding Bigfoot,” “Call of the Wildman” and “Gator Boys” has inspired a full-out network event. Scheduled for May 21-28, Monster Week will gather new episodes of all these shows. It will also present the hunt for a 20-foot “Man-Eating Super Croc” and premiere “Mermaids: The Body Found,” a two-hour exploration that supports the existence of mermaids and even display (with the help of CGI) how they might really appear.

On Super Bowl Sunday, some viewers have a demonstrated preference for puppies over pigskin, so Animal Planet’s “Puppy Bowl” will be back for its ninth year next February on the grand gridiron of Animal Planet Stadium. It will feature fan favorites like the water bowl cam, kiss cam and the annual Kitty Halftime Show.

But, for the first time, it will be more than a TV show, with plans afoot (a-paw?) for puppy fantasy football leagues, mobile apps and even live tailgate adoption parties across America.

“We’re taking Puppy Bowl from being just one day to being an event,” said Kaplan, who’s aiming for a Puppy Bowl more suited to the grand scale of its rival Super Bowl. “After all, we’re like football,” she reasons _ “only cuter.”

Also among the new offerings, don’t forget “Treehouse Men,” a specialized group of builders and dreamers who earn their living in the treetops. Their goal: to create for their clients the most magnificent, whimsical and amazing treehouses in forests and backyards across America and around the world.

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