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March 29, 2017

Wildlife expert played role in cultural shift

With legendary zoologist and environmental champion Jim Fowler visiting Florida Gulf Coast University on Friday in a Cohen Center appearance sponsored by the Wings of Hope program, it occurred to us at FGCU360 that perhaps some younger members of the university audience might not realize how big this guy really is.

An abridged history of America’s fascination with exotic animals might be in order to establish Fowler’s place in the pecking order.

Jim Fowler

Through the first half of the 20th century, most Americans’ exposure to creatures from other continents was spiced with swashbuckle and sensationalism that led to submission and captivity. Frank Buck’s “Bring ‘Em Back Alive!” serials detailed the daring Texan’s expeditions capturing big game for American zoos and circuses.  “Tarzan” films, the most famous of which starred Depression-era swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller, showcased the King of Apes’ mastery over all jungle creatures, most notably his chimp companion, Cheeta, while interspersing stock footage of beautiful Africa. Circus star Clyde Beatty wowed audiences across the globe by taming the roaring big cats with a cracking whip and blank-firing pistol.

Then, in the 1960s and ’70s, a more compassionate attitude toward animals evolved, thanks to masterfully produced Disney nature films, and television shows created by Hungarian filmmaker Ivan Tors: “Flipper” and “Gentle Ben,” two family favorites with dolphin and black bear stars, respectively, using Florida’s unspoiled beauty as a backdrop; and “Daktari,” about an American veterinarian in Africa.

This also was a time when, beyond the concrete-iron-and-glass zoos, roadside animal attractions became popular for the up-close experience, with two of the more famous ones still thriving in our Southwest Florida backyard. “Jungle Larry” and “Safari Jane” Tetzlaff revived a neglected garden attraction in Naples in 1969 by bringing animals into what is now The Naples Zoo, and the Piper brothers grew and expanded the Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs they first established in 1936 and is now under the management of a private foundation.

Bridging that evolution — from a fascination with animals that we feared, caged and too-often killed to a love of creatures we now admire, respect and fiercely protect — was a groundbreaking television show that has lasted five-plus decades in some form.

When “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” first premiered in January 1963, its hosts were 58-year-old Marlin Perkins, a reptile expert who had been director of both the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the St. Louis Zoo; and a 30-year-old zoologist from Georgia named Jim Fowler, whose expertise was birds of prey.

The pair had a formula that attracted and captivated a prime-time audience every Sunday night. The spectacle of tracking, observing and humanely capturing sometimes-dangerous animals in their natural habitats for educational purposes was their way to introduce the public to how ecosystems work and the importance of preserving all animal species, especially those threatened and endangered.

“Wild Kingdom” is where animal sensationalism met, then yielded to, animal sustainability for the very first time. And one of the most influential pioneers who orchestrated that epiphanic meeting — and through the medium of TV instilled a newfound respect for the natural world in Americans that continues to grow — was Jim Fowler.

Yes, Fowler was and is still that big — both literally, at a strapping 6 feet, 4 inches in his prime, and figuratively, as a monumental ambassador and advocate for wildlife and the environment. He comes to FGCU as the now-84-year-old front man for the “Think Big, Get Wild Challenge” initiative of the Epicus social community.

For a primer on Fowler’s latest mission, and that of the challenge, check out YouTube.