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Jim Fowler, the naturalist and longtime co-host and host of the TV show Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, died Wednesday at his home in Norwalk, Connecticut, his family announced. He was 89.
Fowler, an Emmy winner for his work on the nature program, also made more than 100 appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, served as a wildlife correspondent for the Today show and showed up (with a hawk) as a guest on a talk show hosted by Kramer (Michael Richards) out of his apartment on a 1997 episode of Seinfeld.
Fowler and fellow zoologist Marlin Perkins worked on Wild Kingdom starting with the pilot episode that aired on Jan. 9, 1963, through Perkins’ retirement in 1985. Fowler then went it alone for a few years and returned to the show when it was revived in 2002.
Born on April 9, 1930, in Albany, Georgia, Fowler grew up on his family farm. He excelled on his high school baseball and football teams and was offered a contract by the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees. He attended Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, earning degrees in zoology and geology.
The 6-foot-6 Fowler worked at a raptor sanctuary in Florida and forged a reputation as an authority on predatory birds when he became the first man to successfully trap a harpy eagle and bring it back alive to the U.S. Perkins, who had hosted a Chicago-based TV show called Zoo Parade, spotted him with a harpy eagle on Today and asked him if he’d like to co-host a new show, Wild Kingdom, for NBC.
The program, which also played in syndication for years, was filmed all over the world and featured the pair interacting with creatures in their natural habitats.
“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,” Fowler said in a 2015 interview with Connecticut Magazine.
“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.”
Fowler said that when he went on The Tonight Show, he “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.”
After Carson retired, Fowler said he and his wife, Betsey, took the host, his wife and their two sons on a trip to Africa.
Survivors include his wife, a wildlife artist, and their children, Mark and Carrie. Donations can be made to the Jim Fowler Legacy Fund via a tax-deductible donation to Earthquest, dedicated to wildlife preservation and education.
On the Wild Kingdom website, a page devoted to Fowler says his mission “was to educate the public about wildlife species throughout the world and how to preserve environments for both animals and humans.
“Whether presenting to a group of fellow animal experts or elementary school students, Fowler’s message remained the same: ‘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.'”
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