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Memphis Flyer TV's Wild Man

Jim Fowler talks about his life as one of the world's best-known naturalists

By Debbie Gilbert

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  "I'll just stand here out of harm's way while Jim wrestles the tiger to the ground."

What TV viewers seem to remember best about Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom is remarks like this, made by host Marlin Perkins each week. But Perkins never said any such thing.

"Johnny Carson started the jokes about me and Marlin in his monologues," says former Wild Kingdom co-host Jim Fowler. There was no animosity, though, between the naturalist and the comedian; Fowler and his animal friends visited the Tonight Show more than 100 times. He still appears frequently on late-night talk shows, and he's been doing wildlife reports for NBC's Today show twice a month since 1988.

In addition to his TV work, Fowler is executive director of Mutual of Omaha's Wildlife Heritage Center -- a job that entails visiting zoos and nature centers around the country. That's what brings him to the Memphis Zoo on Friday, August 29th. Fowler will perform animal shows at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. in the zoo amphitheatre, where he'll impart information about some of the zoo's species and also discuss his career.

He'll be accompanied to Memphis by his wife Betsey Fowler, a prominent wildlife artist, who will be selling and autographing poster prints of her works at the zoo both Friday and Saturday.

A life in the public eye was hardly what Fowler envisioned when he decided, as a child growing up in Albany, Georgia, that he wanted to become a naturalist. He earned degrees in zoology and geology from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, intending to devote his career to studying birds of prey. He was working at a raptor sanctuary near Ocala, Florida, in the late Fifties when he first met Marlin Perkins, who was then director of Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo and host of a TV series called Zoo Parade. "Marlin did a show from there," says Fowler, "and my boss said, `Marlin, have the boy go get the eagle.' I was in my early twenties."

A couple of years later, Fowler went to Africa to help train animals for a low-budget movie. "I had a wild trip back on a freighter with all these animals -- there were no laws about endangered species back then -- that I had trapped and trained to use for educational work," Fowler says. When he arrived in New York, he was invited to appear on the Today show, thus launching his TV career.

But a graduate degree beckoned, and Fowler traveled to the Amazon to conduct the first in-depth study of the harpy, the world's largest eagle. When he presented a few of these eagles on the Today show in 1961, Marlin Perkins saw the program and asked Fowler if he'd like to do the pilot for Wild Kingdom. The Emmy-winning series debuted in 1962 and became one of the longest-running syndicated shows in television history. After Perkins died in 1986, Fowler took the helm on Wild Kingdom, which is now seen in reruns on some PBS stations. He also has hosted Mutual of Omaha's Spirit of Adventure for the Animal Planet cable network.

"There's no denying that television is one of the most powerful propaganda media we've ever invented," Fowler says. "But you don't often see a spokesman for the natural world. Most of what you see now emphasizes animals being dangerous to humans." He deplores the popularity of shows such as When Animals Attack. "It does an injustice to the natural world. Everybody has a camcorder now, and they exploit these incidents and blow them all out of proportion. People are afraid because they've lost their connection to animals."

Zoos need to assume responsibility for reestablishing that connection, Fowler says. "The biggest challenge is how to affect public attitudes and make people care. One of the things I'll talk about in Memphis is the new terms we need to be using. The word `conservation' puts people to sleep. They don't think it affects their daily lives. The new term has got to be something that relates to the human world. What I've come up with is `sustainable consumption.'"

According to Fowler, people must recognize that their actions have an impact on animal populations, but they should also realize that their own lives are controlled by environmental phenomena. "Almost all of the social tragedies occurring around the world today are caused by ignoring the basic biological laws of nature," he says. These laws, he explains, mostly concern how systems renew themselves -- the cycles of water, oxygen, or solar energy, for example. Any disruption to these cycles can lead to floods, famines, and other costly disasters.

Through his zoo visits and TV appearances, Fowler hopes to educate people about how to live in harmony with the Earth and its creatures. That's a tall order, considering that talk-show hosts like to play his TV gigs for laughs. "Sure, television doesn't quite create the platform you'd like," he says, "but you've got to work with it."

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