Peter Gros, Mutual of Omaha's “Wild Kingdom” ambassador, fears that kids today suffer from “nature deficit disorder.”
“Children spend more time looking at screens and video games,” Gros said. “We encourage them, 'Get out with your family. Whatever you like to do, get outside and reconnect with nature.' ”
At 8 p.m. Friday at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha, the mustachioed Gros will perform his family-friendly show. Yes, it's indoors, but he brings animals onstage — and kids from the audience, too.
Cameras focus on their faces to show their reactions on big screens. They will see a small African cat and one of the world's largest owls, Gros said, and “help me hold a handful of hissing cockroaches.”
They can hold a lizard, he said, getting over fears and seeing that it is not slimy and cold.
Said Gros: “We get wonderful questions and expressions.”
Growing up in the Hudson Valley of New York and watching “Wild Kingdom” on Sundays, Peter Gros never envisioned that he would succeed legendary host Marlin Perkins. But he joined Jim Fowler on the program in 1985, and both remain ambassadors for Mutual.
It seems counterintuitive that a city in the middle of America would be so associated with the conservation of exotic wildlife. But that surely has happened over the past half-century — between Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and Omaha's acclaimed Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
“I've been to many zoos, and the Omaha zoo is one of the best in the world,” Gros said. “That zoo is very, very impressive.”
Besides its many public features over a broad landscape, he said, it is a leader in education and research into endangered species.
Gros said he has visited South American jungles, and the Omaha zoo's rain forest “is a similar environment in its sounds and smells, with wildlife very much like being in a Peruvian rain forest — but without all the mosquitoes.”
The idea for TV's “Wild Kingdom” resulted from discussions between Perkins and V.J. Skutt, who was then the Mutual of Omaha insurance company's chairman. This is the 50th anniversary of the show's debut.
It aired until 1988. Starting in 2002, new “Wild Kingdom” episodes aired for nine seasons on cable television's Animal Planet. The original shows can be seen on the YouTube “Wild Kingdom TV” channel.
A new online “webisode” series began Sunday, and can be seen at WildKingdom.com. The host, who dived to coral reefs off the Florida Keys in the premiere, is Stephanie Arne. She began her career at the Omaha zoo and is a wildlife educator for the Honolulu Zoological Society.
“The new webisode format is very current, and it's all new stories,” Gros said. “It's very modern, and I'm excited that this new way will be very popular.”
Peter grew up in a rural setting, and his grandfather was a forester.
“I connected to nature by walking out my backyard into the woods,” Gros said. “That was my childhood playground.”
He eventually studied animal husbandry and led the successful breeding of various species — including a tiger who gave birth to seven cubs. He was invited to bring the cubs onto “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and met Fowler.
Perkins was retiring in 1985, and Gros was invited to become co-host of “Wild Kingdom.” It was a physical job, and he had an early mishap.
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Tracking caribou by helicopter in Alaska, he was lowering himself down a rope when a gust of wind altered his descent and he harpooned his face on a small tree. He had plastic surgery on his nose in Fairbanks and missed a couple of months of work.
He continues to appear as a guest on national TV shows. He once handed a bear cub to host Kelly Ripa, who soon needed to clean herself off.
A former vice president at Marine World/Africa USA, Gros has developed a rehabilitation program for birds of prey as well as America's largest captive breeding colony of ostriches.
In his show at the Holland (tickets range from $15 to $30), he will share tales of his travels and clips of bloopers, as well as “inspirational stories” about conservation.
“The challenge today,” he said, “is to give meaning to young people and help them understand and care about wildlife.”
Gros and his wife, Leslie, have been married for 40 years and have three adult sons. The family has enjoyed backpacking, hiking and camping.
Expeditions have taken him to Siberia, the Amazon Basin, Nepal and beyond. He has studied the effects of ecotourism on wildlife in Venezuela, Costa Rica, Belize, Mexico and the Galapagos Islands.
He never has counted the number of countries he has visited.
“I've been to many, and I love 'em all,” he said. “But my absolute favorite country to visit is the one I live in. With our national parks and wild lands, we are so fortunate to live here.”