September 11, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

The average Animal Planet viewer is still very, very sad that [Wild Kingdom‘s] Marlin Perkins isn’t on the air,” quips Andy Kindler, host of the cable net’s celebs-and-their-critters chat show, The Pet Shop. I’m normally no fan of such Wild fare — I still haven’t discovered the Discovery Channel — but I’m one of the increasing number of Americans hooked on Animal Planet. Spun off Discovery in 1996, AP is currently one of basic cable’s fastest-growing networks, reaching 42 million viewers.

Why do I love AP? Maybe it’s the programs’ warm-and-fuzzy approach to fauna (no When Animals Attack I, II, or III here). Maybe it’s the soothing effect its shows have on my 2-year-old son. Or maybe it’s one of these five reasons:

1. JUDGE WAPNER STILL RULES With his trusty bailiff, Rusty Burrell, the septuagenarian ex-People’s Court jurist will now preside over Judge Wapner’s Animal Court. Hearing pet-related cases (e.g., a florist claims that her neighbor’s chow chomped on her, leading to $5,000 in medical bills), Wapner displays a cool, gentlemanly intellect that makes Judge Judy and her ill-tempered ilk look downright rabid. You don’t have to be Rain Man (”Five minutes to Wapner!”) to look forward to this show.

2. CALL ME A SEXIST PIG, BUT REBECCA HARRIS BRINGS OUT THE BEAST IN ME The cohost of the Australian import Animal Doctor could be the new Spice Girl — Veterinary Spice. As she hangs out at various animal clinics down under, Harris is simultaneously posh (that Aussie accent drives me wild) and sporty (she’ll hop a fence with the RSPCA to save an abused dog). She can even make a ferret with a tumor seem sexy.

3. THE BITCH IS BACK Lassie, that is. The lovable collie has returned in a new show that puts a ’90s spin on the classic boy-and-his-dog tales, with episodes seemingly inspired by The X-Files (Lassie investigates mysterious UFO sightings) and The Horse Whisperer (Lassie finds a healer for her equine pal, Shadow). Still, the show isn’t above dusting off a reliable old plotline: Lassie rescues Timmy (Corey Sevier) after he gets trapped in a mine shaft. Good girl!

4. GOODBYE REAL WORLD, HELLO VETS IN PRACTICE The MTV docu-soap has nothing on this BBC reality show, which parrots The Real World‘s handwritten, first-name-only graphics as it follows nine attractive twentysomethings who have just graduated from vet school. The series delves into their sex lives (Steve’s a love-’em-and-leave-’em horndog) as well as their professional problems (Emma operates on a ewe with an infected womb). Unlike those MTV brats, these likable U.K. youngsters don’t seem like horse’s arses.

5. FOUR WORDS: ACORN, THE NATURE NUT John Acorn doesn’t just host this charming Canadian kiddie show. He also writes its music, including the insanely catchy theme song (”I’m a nature nut/I’m not afraid to admit/I’m wild about wildlife/And I’m proud of it”). In one episode, the endearingly geeky Acorn declared July 26 Big Wet Rodent Day and splashed around a pond looking for beavers. With adorable Animal Planet programs like this, I’m not afraid to admit I’m a nature nut too.

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