'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom' debuted 50 years ago

File photo of Jim Fowler.

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Naturalist Jim Fowler faced a lot of wild beasts during his long career with “Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.”

Some of those encounters could have ended badly.

Like the time a 22-foot anaconda swallowed his arm up to his shoulder.

“Luckily I knew what to do,” he said, explaining that he stood perfectly still as others took off running. The snake let go rather than crushing Fowler to death.

And the time a chimpanzee named Mr. Moke “punched me square between the eyes,” knocking him out.

Or the time the Land Rover he was riding in to follow giraffes hit a hole in the road. The driver was going too fast and a huge camera flew up and landed on Fowler's head, again knocking him cold.

But what really sticks in his mind is the time 200 enraged elephants charged him. The elephants thought the humans were water buffalo, and when the matriarch elephant's calf tripped, she thought Fowler was responsible and charged. The herd followed.

Fowler ran fast and hopped into the back of the flatbed truck. Because there was room for him to maneuver on the flatbed, he was able to get out of the mama elephant's way until the truck got going.

“You can bluff a male elephant,” he said. “Not a female. That cow tried to kill me.”

A clear head and a lot of luck have kept Fowler alive long enough to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first show, which aired Jan. 6, 1963.

In 1963, when V.J. Skutt, Mutual's president and chairman of the board, agreed to underwrite a fledgling nature program on television, a partnership that would last 50 years was born. The “Wild Kingdom” brand has served the Omaha insurance company well over the years.

“It took a year to get the pilot program filmed and sponsored. It was crazy,” remembered Fowler, 80, a long-time field correspondent and later host of the show.

Mutual of Omaha had run some ads on a Chicago show called “Zoo Parade” that featured host Marlin Perkins and went off the air in 1957, Fowler said. Perkins' love of animals and the fact that he would be host of the new “Wild Kingdom” led Skutt, who was interested in nature and conservation, to sponsor the show, which aired on NBC until 1971.

“He was such a profound guy,” Fowler said of Skutt in a recent phone interview. “He decided to take a look at the show and came through.”

It may have helped, he added, that the first producer of the show was “Zoo Parade” producer Don Meier, who was from Omaha.

“Wild Kingdom” went on to win four Emmys and was the first television series to receive the National Parent Teacher Association's “Recommended for Family Viewing” designation.

Fowler's work with the harpy eagle in the Amazon jungle brought him to Perkins' attention. Perkins had seen Fowler on the “Today” show and invited him to make the “Wild Kingdom” pilot.

“We can say we were one of the first reality shows,” Fowler said. “It was real.”

He's proud that their work on “Wild Kingdom” set the standard that endures today for nature programs — from the late Steve Irwin's “Crocodile Hunter” to programming on the National Geographic, Discovery and Animal Planet channels.

Fowler also led the way in television programming with his visits to talk shows, especially his many appearances on Johnny Carson's “Tonight Show,” which Fowler recalled as some of the most humorous moments of his career.

“I was on hundreds of times,” he said.

Mutual of Omaha's Jennifer Whitney, whom Fowler calls one of his “handlers” in his capacity as ambassador for “Wild Kingdom,” said it was always fun to coordinate his appearances with Carson.

“They had a genuine affection for each other, and were friends outside of the show,” she said.

Now naturalists and their animals routinely visit all the talk shows, and hosts get to mug for the camera as they interact with the animals.

Fowler has hundreds of animal and television stories and he's a natural raconteur. And he laughs a lot — at things that seem funny now but maybe didn't when they occurred.

When Perkins first invited Fowler and his harpy eagle (one of the largest eagle species) to Chicago, they shot an episode about attack and defense in Lincoln Park. The crew was excited about how Fowler had trained the bird to fly from a perch to him and wanted Fowler to take it off the line that kept it attached to him. Fowler was reluctant to do this because if it got away, Chicagoans “might think a pterodactyl was flying overhead.”

As an experiment, they decided to put the eagle in a tree but still on the line. That was a lucky decision, it turned out. Without the crew's knowledge, a little white-haired lady with a white poodle had wormed her way into the roped-off filming area. The bird saw them and took off toward them.

“Thank goodness I was able to grab the line,” Fowler said. “Had the eagle grabbed the woman or the dog, my career would have been over before it started.”

Another funny story involved filming an episode about myths and superstitions, also in Chicago. To see if elephants truly were afraid of mice, they planned to put a mouse on an elephant's back. But first they showed an elephant sucking up water with its trunk and spraying it into his mouth for a drink.

Then the mouse bit came up. When Perkins reached into his pocket to get the mouse, he discovered that the critter had eaten a hole in his pocket and was scurrying across his shoulders under his coat.

When the mouse was finally caught and placed on the elephant's back, “all heck broke loose,” Fowler said. The huge animal was startled and blasted the mouse off its back with a trunk full of water. Then it took another drink and blasted all the new paint off the floor, drenching Perkins and Fowler. The floor had to be repainted.

“It ended up being an expensive shoot,” Fowler said.

Mutual's Whitney said she has heard his stories and thinks she could repeat them word for word.

“But he surprises me and I hear something different every time he gives a talk,” she said. “The amazing thing, when you look back at some of the dangerous situations he's been in, it's a miracle he's still alive to tell all his stories.”

The naturalist has been to Omaha many times over the years. He used to give nature lectures at Peony Park and has visited Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. He'll be back here on Feb. 1 for a 50th anniversary celebration of “Wild Kingdom.”

Fowler divides his time between New Canaan, Conn., and Albany, Ga., home of the Chehaw Wild Animal Park, which he designed. He said his passion is designing new kinds of wildlife parks, which he envisions as natural settings with moving cages for human visitors.

Fowler said he's proud that “Wild Kingdom” taught people to look at wildlife differently, that so many people tell him they were inspired to find careers in zoos, animal medicine and other animal-related occupations because of it. His son, Mark, is a documentary filmmaker for National Geographic.

“I get sentimental when I realize how 'Wild Kingdom' penetrated all the families in America.”

And he has nothing but praise for Mutual of Omaha. “It's amazing that the company has stuck with us all these years.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1067, carol.bicak@owh.com

'Wild Kingdom' animals go to school

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