April 9 — Jim Fowler, “Wild Kingdom” Co-host, Born (1932)

For those of us of a certain age (that is, old), the name Jim Fowler is synonymous with animal adventures.  Fowler was the co-host, with Marlin Perkins, of the television program, Wild Kingdom.  Perkins was the star; Fowler did the dirty work.  We all wanted to be Jim Fowler.

Fowler was born on April 9, 1932, near Albany, New York.  He grew up on a farm and learned to love nature and animals in particular.  He went to Earlham College in Indiana, earning a degree in zoology and geology (later, the college also gave him an honorary doctorate).  He kicked around the animal rehabilitation and trade world a bit, and started a graduate degree studying the Harpy, a large South American eagle.

Graduate school took a back seat when Fowler was invited to appear on The Today Show in 1961, to talk about his work with eagles.  Marlin Perkins saw him on the show and signed him to co-host the new television show, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  And for the next two decades, they were America’s favorite wildlife conservationists.  Wild Kingdom took viewers around the world, as Perkins described the behavior of animals and Fowler wrestled with them—collecting animals for zoos and conservation efforts.

Fowler downplayed the difference between the work of Perkins and him on the show.  “Marlin was just as active,” he said, “but the camera cutting back and forth between us gave viewers a false impression.”  Everyone I know had that false impression.  At 6’6” tall and a former college athlete, he was a gentle giant.  Fowler wrestled with snakes and alligators, jumped onto animals from helicopters, ran away from angry beasts, while Perkins told us about how the need for animals to defend their territories showed why we needed homeowner’s insurance.  “I once went behind a giant termite mound in Zambia,” Fowler recalled. “It was sort of a cold day, and I walked away from camp further than I should have. I was going to lie up against the mound because it was in the sun. I started to walk around the edges, and all of a sudden, five feet in front of me was a big male lion, which I woke up. They told me later that I roared louder than the lion did!”  That’s the Jim Fowler I remember.

Fowler’s close encounters carried him to fame on other television shows.  He became a regular on The Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson.  He appeared more than 100 times, always with an animal or two that created hilarious scenes with Carson.

Some people objected to those appearances, but Fowler believes that it was a form of education that was needed.  He believes that people must get familiar with animals and learn to like them before they will act to conserve them and their habitats.  He contends that his work helps change public attitudes so people will protect the environment.  He has said, “The continued existence of wildlife and wilderness is important to the quality of life of humans. The challenge of the future is that we realize we are very much a part of the Earth’s ecosystem and learn to respect and live according to the basic biological laws of nature.”

Although Wild Kingdom ended as a television show in the late 1980s, Fowler has not slowed down.  He is president of the Fowler Center for Wildlife Education, which he founded to carry forward his mission to educate on the importance of conserving nature, and executive director of Mutual of Omaha’s Wildlife Heritage Center, dedicated to the same purpose.  “All these adventures I’ve had, I’ve injected myself into the jungles of this world. I understand how it all works, and it’s my job to influence other people now. It’s a bit of an emergency.”

References:

Animal Planet.  Jim Fowler.  Available at:  http://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/wild-kingdom/experts/magnificent-moments-jim-fowler-jim-fowler/.  Accessed April 8, 2018.

Burridge, Grace F.  2013.  Jim Fowler (b. 193o).  New Georgia Encyclopedia.  Available at:   https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/geography-environment/jim-fowler-b-1930.  Accessed April 8, 2018 (note:  the title reference to his birth date is an error; he was born in 1932).

Catarevas, Michael.  2015.  ‘Mutual of Omasha’s Wild Kingdom’ Star Jim Fowler is Still Dedicate to Protecting Nature.  Connecticut Magazine, Mary 1, 2015.  Available at:  http://www.connecticutmag.com/the-connecticut-story/mutual-of-omaha-s-wild-kingdom-star-jim-fowler-is/article_5fe17765-7f3e-55bb-8e32-d0ec3c4a9021.html.  Accessed April 8, 2018.