'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom' Star Jim Fowler is Still Dedicated to Protecting Nature

On a recent frozen February afternoon, Jim Fowler peers out the kitchen window of his Rowayton home at a hanging bird feeder being occupied by a hungry squirrel.

“How the heck did he get up there?” wonders the former star of the long-running TV program, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” 

Fowler taps on the window and the squirrel scrams, but the aggressive critter quickly returns for a second course, answering Fowler’s question by climbing up a railing, then jumping several feet to land on the feeder.

“Well I’ll be darned,” says Fowler, smiling.

The wonders of nature and its inhabitants have never stopped fascinating the 83-year-old, whether he’s in Africa, encountering the planet’s most dangerous animals, or simply observing suburban backyard creatures. Which is why he may have changed career course, but has never given retirement a thought.

These days Fowler and his wife Betsey (below right), married 43 years, pursue their passions nonstop. He is now a spokesman for the preservation of animals, open space and the environment, while she is a prominent wildlife artist, producing vivid paintings (like the one in the image below) sold as poster prints via the Internet and at art shows throughout the country.The Fowlers have called Connecticut home since 1984, when they moved to New Canaan from New York to raise their son Mark, now a documentary filmmaker, and daughter Carrie.

The camera-friendly smile and sparkling eyes people remember from his “Wild Kingdom” years are still Fowler’s trademarks. He has slowed over the years, and currently uses a cane to get around after a left knee replacement. “And I need to get the right one done,” he laments. “A lot of people think a rhinoceros or alligator got me, but it was from playing football in the ’50s.”

Jim and Betsey met in Chicago in the late 1960s, during the formative years of “Wild Kingdom.”

“Back then, Chicago was the center of the television industry, and that’s where the show was based,” says Fowler. “Betsey was working there as an artist in the advertising business, doing fashion drawings of women and other things. I was invited to speak to the Women’s Advertising Club.

“When it was over, Betsey came up to me and said she enjoyed it. Then at a party a few nights later, I was telling some women that I train animals and respect them, but don’t necessarily love them, because my life can be in danger if I don’t read them correctly.

“Betsey heard that and scolded me a bit. I calmed her down, and thought if I could buffalo her, she might be a pretty good date.”

They would marry, and Jim took her to Africa, where she developed a love for painting animals, a passion she still pursues today.

A LIFE OF ADVENTUREStill a large, imposing presence, Fowler’s once 6’6 frame is now closer to 6’5. He has lived an enviable life of action and adventure, starting when he excelled in sports growing up in Albany, Ga. A high school baseball star, he was offered contracts by the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees.

“I was thinking for a long time that I might be a professional ballplayer,” he says. “But I wanted to play college football.”

He did, at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., earning degrees in zoology and geology. With injuries having scuttled any chance of a baseball career, Fowler decided to study and work with birds of prey. He was employed at a raptor sanctuary in Florida when he first met Marlin Perkins, who, as host of a TV series called “Zoo Parade,” was filming a segment there. A few years later Fowler was in New York after having been in Africa helping capture wildlife for zoos. He was bringing birds back to Florida, but before doing so was asked to make an appearance with one on the “Today” show.

“That’s been something I’ve heard all my life,” he says with a chuckle. “People always ask me to come speak. Then they say, ‘By the way, bring your animals.’ They don’t want me, they want my animals!”In 1961, Perkins saw Fowler on “Today” showing off a powerful harpy eagle (like in the image at right), and asked him if he’d like to co-host the pilot for “Wild Kingdom.” It debuted in 1962 and became one of the longest-running syndicated shows in television history, making Perkins and Fowler huge stars.

In the early years, Perkins, Fowler and producer Don Meier did the show on the cheap. With only one camera in the field, it often appeared that the young buck Fowler was doing the heavy lifting, with the older Perkins barking orders.

Not so, says Fowler. “Marlin was just as active, but the camera cutting back and forth between us gave viewers a false impression. Once we had more cameras, it looked better.”

With “Wild Kingdom” a success, there was more time to plan episodes. The principals worked with wildlife conservation groups and game wardens in Africa and other exotic locales. Most of the time the action would center around having to tag animals for scientific research or to transport to safer environments, as well as catching and transporting specimens to zoos worldwide.

“We did a lot of what I call capture, wrestle and tag,” says Fowler. “It was all real. We joined in with wardens and scientists on projects they were doing. We also did a few shows a year on animal behavior, without Marlin or me being there.”

THE CLOSEST CALLS

Fowler has often been asked how he was able to maintain his composure when taking on wildlife most people would find terrifying.

“Today’s media has done a pretty good job of trying to make animals extremely dangerous, and I worry about that,” he says. “I know the reality of a situation, what’s threatening and what isn’t. I worked with animals well before I was on ‘Wild Kingdom,’ and I learned that if you’re gonna fool around with them, you better know what the danger points are.

“For example, a big anaconda down in the Amazon, you gotta know that it’ll wrap you tail-first. You don’t want to hold the head and leave the tail out there, because if it gets you with the tail around your neck or waist, one that weighs 200-some pounds, you’re done for. When you work with a snake that’s as big around as an ale keg, you better know what you’re doing.”

Regularly interacting with the planet’s most dangerous animals on their turf, Fowler had some extremely close calls, but even on those he knew what to do to survive.

“I once went behind a giant termite mound in Zambia,” he recalls. “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!

“You see, there are zones you have to be aware of. There’s the attack zone, of about three feet, where if you surprise an animal it will attack you rather than run. Then there’s the flight zone. Pelicans will let you get within about 40 feet, then they’ll move on. A deer in the woods only lets you get so close before it runs. When I’m working with animals I gotta know all this. 

“I was within the attack zone of that lion. I reacted instinctively by growling myself, roaring. The lion pushed off, luckily. He went around a little ridge. I saw his head come up about 45 feet away. It was like if you shoo a house cat—it’ll run into another room, then look back around the corner. With a lion you better get out of there once he looks back and figures things out.”

Continuing, Fowler proves why he’s been so popular and entertaining, and an in-demand speaker for conventions.

“I like to use analogies with the human world,” he says. “Like when you get in the car on a first date, there’s a flight zone, and she’s sitting over there next to the door. But if you play it right, usually through food reward, she gets over within the attack zone. You see what I mean? Human behavior is based on the same thing.”

Turning serious again, Fowler describes encountering a hostile gorilla in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda.

“He was fighting another gorilla,” says Fowler. “I was there with a cameraman who was filming for the show. He didn’t know it but he’d gotten too close to them. You don’t want to ever do that. It’s like if there are four or five dogs fighting on a sidewalk, you don’t get near them because they’ll all of a sudden turn on you as the weakest one, and go after you. 

“This gorilla came rushing down the mountain, tearing up bushes and throwing things. My cameraman crawled under a log. It came at me, stopping about three feet away. I was crouched, with my head down, doing a little praying. I knew not to look him in the eyes. That gorilla, his hair was pushed up like a pincushion. Boy, he was ready! If I’d looked him in the eyes, he’d have taken it as a challenge and killed me. But I kept my head down. And all of a sudden, he just wandered back uphill and started eating wild celery and bamboo. So, I’ve been eating a lot of wild celery lately.”

Fowler explains that the ferocity in the animal world is nature’s way of fine-tuning each creature.

“Nature is not the kind of place where animals are out there frolicking, holding hands and dancing,” he says. “We get that from all the fairly tales and Disney movies. Guess what animals are doing in the wild? They’re fighting, killing and eating each other. The only way that nature can survive is to improve the species in every generation. So predators are there to take off the weak, the sick and the stupid.”

HEEERE'S JOHNNY! (& JERRY)

Fowler loves educating people about nature and animals, so he embraced being on “Wild Kingdom,” and was happy to do other shows.

It is unlikely that any TV talk show guest ever has, or will again, become as renowned as Fowler appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. In close to 100 spots, with a bird or animal, Fowler and his creatures almost always trumped the celebrities sitting next to him. He started appearing on the show in New York, and continued after it relocated to Los Angeles.

“People would tell me I had a good rapport with Johnny,” he says. “And it was true. I understood that the animal was the real guest and Johnny was the star. And he was brilliant because he never tried to do something funny with the animal. He knew the unpredictable was what would be funny. I always brought animals that weren’t very dangerous, but could be unpredictable.

“I had so many things happen with Johnny, and he was able to handle them all smoothly and quickly. I had to really focus and listen to what he was saying. I set him up for laughs a few times. You didn’t ever try to be funny with Johnny; you let him be funny.”

(An example below)

Fowler had a few regrets on the set. One time while single, he was to appear on the same show with a young woman singer who would be making her “Tonight Show” debut.

“We were backstage, and she was talking a lot, very vivacious,” he recalls. “She heard that I knew about animal behavior. She had a parrot in her apartment that had lost feathers, and begged me to go there with her to take a look. I had some animals with me so it would have been a little difficult, and I was too dumb to take her up on it.”

Barbra Streisand.

Fowler and Carson became close friends, often dining together. “Johnny was a quiet, private man,” he says. “When he finally stopped doing the show, Betsey and I took him and his wife and their two sons to Africa. It was quite a trip. People don’t know this about Johnny, but he was a linguist. Before we left he spent a short time studying Swahili, then had conversations with the Maasai people.

“He was also a magician, and did tricks for them that about drove them crazy, making coins disappear and so forth. When he came back he said publicly that Africa changed his life.”

Even with 30-plus years on “Wild Kingdom” and all the appearances on “The Tonight Show,” Fowler has no doubt what he’s most recognized for—his five-minute cameo on the show about nothing.

“I got a call in 1997 from the producer of ‘Seinfeld,’ asking me to come out to Los Angeles to be on an episode,” he says. “They only gave me a few days notice, and I didn’t want to go. I told my son Mark, and he said, ‘Dad, you gotta do ‘Seinfeld!’ You’re so square, you gotta do it!’

“So I went out there with this hawk, because Kramer was doing a talk show out of his apartment. They always had these stories on ‘Seinfeld’ that didn’t make much sense. Kramer was talking to Jerry in the restaurant and said his show wasn’t doing well. He said he was going to get Jim Fowler and his animals.

Jerry was skeptical Kramer could get me, but Kramer said, ‘I practically raised his kids!’ Mark and Carrie got a big kick out of that.

“I appeared on Kramer’s show with the hawk on my wrist because I thought it was for real. I sat next to Jerry, and my big line was, ‘Where are the cameras?’

“I get a residual payment every time it’s shown in syndication. The first one was about $400, but then it went downhill. Now I get six dollars and fifty cents, which is enough to buy a sandwich, so I’m not complaining.”

PRESERVING THEIR LAND

Having lived in New Canaan since 1984, and raised their children there, the Fowlers moved to Rowayton about a year ago to be closer to Carrie and her family.

They are in the process of trying to make a personal and permanent contribution to nature with their New Canaan land.

“We have over six acres there already and there are already about 40 or so open- space acres,” says Fowler. “Our son Mark thought it would be a great idea to add our property to that. So we called the New Canaan Land Trust (NCLT), which exists to raise interest in New Canaan for such ventures.”

The Fowlers would love to have donated the land outright, but are not in a position to do so. Jim’s years on “Wild Kingdom” predated the lucrative cable TV, Internet streaming and DVD royalties of today. He was a regular salaried employee of Mutual of Omaha, who just happened to be seen by millions of people every Sunday night for three-plus decades.

“I’ve never been very good at following the financial world,” he admits. “My jungle is the other one, but the financial jungle is even more complex. I wish I’d had better success with that.”

Nevertheless, the Fowlers are determined that their former property not be commercially developed, and are willing to sell the land for well below its value.

Chris Schipper, president of NCLT, was thrilled to get the call, and is working with the Fowlers to raise funds for the purchase.

“I view Jim Fowler as a national treasure,” he says. “There are so many of us who grew up with ‘Wild Kingdom.’ That Jim and Betsey want to work with us is a wonderful educational and scientific opportunity.”

Schipper notes that Fowler would be involved with creating nature trails and educational programs there. It would be named the Jim Fowler Audubon Preserve, in his honor.

NO PLACE LIKE CONNECTICUTThe Fowlers, especially Jim, have circled the globe many times, but are convinced there is no place on earth better to live and raise a family than Connecticut.

“We’ve all loved living here,” says Betsey while walking around the New Canaan property. “The sun set right across the pond every afternoon; it was breathtaking. Open land creates family values. To be out here with nature gets you away from all your troubles.”

Jims admits that wherever “Wild Kingdom” took him, he always looked forward to coming home to his own neck of the woods.

“Connecticut is such a beautiful state,” he says. “It has mountains, wilds and coastal areas that are still pretty wild. There’s nothing like the fall colors in Connecticut, just spectacular. And I could go on my porch at night and wouldn’t hear any sounds. Until you’ve been to places where there are no people, you’ll never know what quietude is all about.”

An exceptionally personable man, and a natural storyteller, Fowler enjoys reminiscing about his exploits, but not for too long, because there is much more he wants to accomplish.

“I’m just getting started,” he says with a hearty laugh. “I want to do a radio show because my stories would be great for that format. I’ve still got the voice, the energy and the knowledge.

“My career is one that has gone from showing animals and being on television to now trying to convince people that wildlife, open space and wilderness are important to their lives. We had better be careful because we humans are the custodians of all life on this planet. We can’t ignore it. There are an awful lot of animals and birds that we’re pushing out, and we don’t seem to care.

“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.”

(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)

This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Connecticut Magazine

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