Jim Fowler, representing the wild kingdom

June 05, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

We tend to picture Jim Fowler sitting next to a late-night talk show host (frequently Johnny Carson), with a big bird of prey perched on a shoulder or a long snake undulating around his arms.

Or we recall an episode of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom," in which he wrestled an alligator into the back of a pickup truck for transport to a sanctuary, or stalked a herd of elephants with a camera.

Mr. Fowler worries a little bit about that image.

"Wherever I go to speak, people say, 'By the way, bring your animals,' " concedes the wildlife lecturer, in a mildly aggravated tone. "My challenge is to try to say enough before I bring out the animals . . . and I must admit I feel quite often that, in a short time, I have not done enough."

What he wants to do, he explains in a telephone interview from his home in Connecticut, is persuade audiences to care about preserving wildlife in the wild, not merely as a TV or lecture attraction.

"I hit upon something that at least is a strong argument to me. I ask people, 'Do you want your child to grow up without ever seeing an eagle? Do you want to live on a planet where there are no tigers?' "

He intends to pose the questions during appearances later this week at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. He will be bringing several animals with him, including animals indigenous to the South American rain forest.

Those scenarios are getting closer to reality, he asserts. Yet the world is not addressing the problems, and Mr. Fowler believes that only the opportunity to see wild creatures might -- and he emphasizes the uncertainty -- create enough public support to help.

"I think that basically animals have a right to represent themselves . . . to create that lasting impression with a person who looks eye-to-eye," he says.

Mr. Fowler, who has been preaching his conservation message for 30 years, grew up on a farm in rural Georgia. He gained his appreciation of the wild along the banks of Mud Creek, he writes in the forward to his book, "Jim Fowler's Wildest Places on Earth" (Wild Heritage Trust/Time Life Publishing, $39.95).

He recalls vividly that when he was 6, he saw a 20-foot alligator cross a road near his house and splash into a swamp pool.

"I have never forgotten my excitement, amazement and sense of awe. The scene of the alligator flipping over, spinning around and trying to run away is etched in my mind forever."

Such early familiarity with wildlife produced a lifelong kinship.

"Since I did not consider wilderness to be a hostile environment, I never thought of animals as creatures of the night that would do me harm," he writes.

Mr. Fowler majored in zoology at Earlham College in Indiana, launched his career by training eagles in Florida and eventually joined Marlin Perkins as co-host of "Wild Kingdom." He has been host of the syndicated show since Perkins' death in 1986.

He is also executive director of Mutual of Omaha's Wildlife Heritage Trust, which provides grants and other resources for conservation education on a community level.

Mr. Fowler will appear in Baltimore in connection with Zoo and Aquarium Month. Unlike some wildlife activists who decry the captivity of creatures,, especially marine mammals, he believes people need the opportunity to see the planet's other inhabitants.

"Take Shamu in Sea World [the several killer whales of that name at the ocean-life attractions]. Some 20,000 people a day get to see the incredible personality of an orca. In the wild, probably less than than 1 percent of the people will ever see a whale in their whole lifetime," he says.

"Now I'm the first to agree that animals have to be taken care of in captivity much better . . . but I don't operate under the illusion that these animals have so-called freedom in the wild, as we interpret freedom," he contends.

Wild creatures generally live in danger and stress and "are not frolicking around in some idyllic form of freedom."

He asserts, "I'm afraid now if some people don't have the right to exhibit animals in a way that forms these deep connections with people and kids, that we're going to have a lot of people who don't care. In fact, we already have a lot of people who don't care."

On the day of this interview, Mr. Fowler is preparing to travel to Ghana in western Africa as guest speaker at a conference on eco-tourism, sponsored by the African Travel Association. He cites the development of environmentally-oriented travel as a boon. "It creates an economic incentive for saving wildlife. Frankly, it's probably the most powerful tool we've got."

Mainstream conservation organizations are not on board yet, he says. "It's really tough for the scientific community to accept the fact that something as mundane as tourism can be the salvation for wildlife. But we've finally woken up to the fact that economics make the world go 'round."

Noting that he recently founded the Organization of Wildlife Lecturers, he contends it is time "to redefine the words 'education' and 'conservation.' "

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