Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom: From Humble Roots to Well-funded RebootsApr 26, 2023 03:02PM ● By Sara Locke
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
Before YouTube made seeing the wildest wonders of nature a few keystrokes away, before Steve Irwin taught us that nature was to be protected—and above all, respected—before Morgan Freeman narrated the great migration of penguins, there was Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The program was, for many of us, America’s first brush with nature beyond the skulking raccoons and the nameless black birds of backyard biomes. It revealed combinations of genus and species we’d never encountered, and beyond tantalizing viewers with remote locales and exotic creatures, Wild Kingdom appraised the human impact on life itself.
Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom debuted in 1963, hosted by friends Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler. The duo bravely explored mountain tops and ocean depths in the pursuit of understanding our place in the animal kingdom. They examined the impact of logging on elk populations, global warming on whale migration, and the potential for wider communication with chimpanzees like Lucy, who was able to learn sign language to communicate with handlers. The show demystified the untamed, and established a connection to nature for generations of Americans. This connection resulted in a deeper understanding of, and compassion for, the world we share.
Memories of the show still resonate with former Omahan Justin Trowbridge. His curiosity stoked by the dynamic duo on Wild Kingdom, Trowbridge relished following along as his parents volunteered with Zoofari and the Omaha Zoo fundraising efforts.
“As the kid who was dragged to meetings at the Zoo, my babysitters were some of the managers and directors on the zoo staff,” Trowbridge recalled. “Bud Russo was a wealth of information about animals and the inner workings of the Zoo, and graciously offered his time and expertise to show me around when my parents would bring me along with them.
“After spending the day hanging out with Murphy the Gorilla, feeding Giraffes, or seeing behind the scenes at the Aquarium, I’d head home and watch Wild Kingdom with the rest of our family. I could spend five hours with Bud in the Cat Complex learning about the animals, and he’d never run out of material! Marlin had 30 minutes to cover a given subject. They both had that great voice that was calming but authoritative. Their passion for animals and education came through even when they weren’t trying.”
“If I hear those opening credits, I’m instantly transported back in time,” Trowbridge continued. “We always looked forward to the show because you never really knew what you’d see. But you knew it would be entertaining, educational, and always family-friendly.”
Laura Suess recalled, “I loved watching Wild Kingdom on Sunday nights at my Grandma Daisy’s house! Years later, I was working at Mutual of Omaha and Marlin Perkins came in. I got to shake his hand and chat for a bit. I told him I watched him as a kid, and asked if he ever did the dangerous encounters or if he left those to Jim (Fowler). He laughed and said Jim did the majority of those…I could have talked to him all day!”
Perkins and Fowler won far more than the public’s admiration with their work, landing four Emmys for “outstanding program achievement” in 1966, 1967, 1969, and 1970.
Perkins passed away in 1986 at the age of 81, and Fowler continued to share his passion and compassion for animals until the show called it quits a year later.
A reboot was launched in 2000, and Fowler didn’t miss a step, taking every opportunity to help humans feel more connected with the animals impacted by our choices and behaviors, positing: “What we have to do is ask ourselves, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Only then will we realize that the continued existence of wildlife and wilderness is ultimately important to the quality of life of humans.”
Jim Fowler passed away in 2019 at age 89.
Today, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom is helmed by Peter Gros, the third host to bring the much beloved program to life. Gros initially joined the Wild Kingdom team as co-host to Jim Fowler, with his first episode being “Operation Alligator,” filmed in Louisiana in 1986.
After 38 years with Wild Kingdom, Gros has taken on a new adventure: the latest in the series, Protecting the Wild, premiered in January of this year on RFD-TV and digital channels. Gros hosts the program, which has brought in a team of expert voices to guest-host, including wildlife ecologist Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, Jeff “The Nature Guy” Ewelt, naturalist David Mizejewski, and wildlife advocate Beth Pratt.
In an interview with Omaha Magazine, Gros expressed his excitement and sanguine vision for the series revival:
“I’m honored to be the host,” Gros said. “I thoroughly enjoyed being a host with Jim, but it gives me an opportunity to affect people’s attitude and sort of eliminate the gloom and doom aspect of so much of what I hear on the news about our planet, when in fact—and I’m not saying we don’t have serious problems—but we need to create hope for the next generation. There’s a long list of running evidence about endangered species that are actually doing better
“So the focus of the new series is to show that; to create hope for the next generation so problems don’t seem insurmountable.”