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Viewers of Wild Kingdom in its heydey remember insurance company Mutual of Omaha’s sponsorship (the full title was, in fact, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom) and its American Indian head logo, the grandfatherly tones of narrator and host Marlin Perkins (who resembled a grey Walt Disney), and the occasionally death-defying exploits of man in the field Jim Fowler.
Over the years, co-hosts including Tom Allen, Stan Brock and Peter Gros, taught viewers about an array of animals, filmed at zoos and in the wild.
Other naturalists sometimes joined the Wild Kingdom team, including primatologist Dian Fossey. A 1984 episode, ‘Reunion With The Gorillas’, followed Fossey back to Rwanda, where she had encountered the great apes. The episode aired a year before her murder.
The series covered such diverse topics as animal survival in the wild, treatment of animals in captivity, the environments of primitive peoples, and the interrelationships between primitive peoples and their animal neighbours and different species of animals with each other.
Marlin Perkins had hosted a show called Zoo Parade (1950) from Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo and, with its producer Don Meier, devised this follow-up, never realising the impact it would have on pop culture.
A long-standing joke, pioneered by Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, involved Perkins remaining at a safe distance while Fowler tackled a predator for the camera. However, an encounter with an anaconda proved the host could hold his own.
Perkins fronted the show until 1985 when Fowler took over and remained through to the end of the original series in 1988 (it was revived on Animal Planet in 2002).