Wildlife advocate and educator Peter Gros says he has fond memories of watching the television show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” every Sunday afternoon as a child growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley. The feeling is mutual.
I often watched the show during weekends spent with my father at his Denver apartment — usually while he was cooking dinner or working nearby on fishing-related projects. Sitting still long enough to watch a TV program was never his style.
My dad grew up in South Dakota where duck and pheasant hunting was a popular pastime, but Gros grew up watching rather than hunting the wildlife around him. Seems his backyard, a playground or sorts, was a huge fenced perserve filled with thousands of trees and stocked with various types of wildlife.
Picture diverse conifers and desiduous trees dropping multicolored leaves. Then add in grouse, deer, owls, hawks and more. “It was the ’50s and ’60s,” says Gros, “and I always felt most comfortable and alive when I was in nature.”
Gros recalls “migrating West” during the ’70s to study wildlife husbandry at a place, now defunct, that embraced “the idea of bottle-raising animals and having them become imprinted on you.”
He worked during his 20s in “a pocket park” north of Santa Barbara, where 500 or so hand-raised animals roamed free. “We let them do natural behaviors,” says Gros, “and they’d get a food reward.” Gros’ duties also included giving environment-related lectures.
Gros later moved to Northern California and “helped develop Marine World/Africa USA” in Redwood City, where having “lots of space, waterways and islands” made it possible to turning animals loose.
They took tourists around in “large forty-man Colorado river rafts,” something Gros playfully describes as “caging the people.” Soon Gros got his “big break” — assisting with the largest litter of tigers ever born in captivity. There were seven of them. “We knew they’d only survive,” he recalls, “if we could rotate their nursing.”
“Someone took a picture” says Gros — and it got into some pretty big hands. Soon Johnny Carson called and invited him to “bring the pups” to appear on his show. “Jim Fowler was there,” recalls Gros, “and things went well.” A meeting with Fowler and Marlin Perkins soon followed.
Perkins originally hosted “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” which debuted on NBC in 1963, but retired in 1985 for medical reasons. Fowler, a naturalist who had assisted Perkins with the show, got the hosting gig. Today Fowler and Gros co-host a revamped “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” on the Discovery Channel’s “Animal Planet.”
Gros also serves as a special ambassador for the show, traveling to share the Mutual of Omaha message that “there is a correlation between protecting the world’s natural resources and our business of protecting a family’s resources.”
He’s concerned that today’s youth are suffering a “nature deficit disorder,” but encouraged that parents are “starting to figure it out.” Technology, reflects Gros, disconnects us from nature. So does too much time spent indoors playing video games or just meandering through the mall.
“I want to promote an understanding of the natural world,” says Gros. “It’s healthy,” says Gros, “to set aside daily time to disconnect from technology and walk or hike.” We inspire our children, he says, when we allow them to “see life up close.”
Too little time with nature sometimes leads us to fear it, adds Gros. “Children need to learn about it,” he says, “so they feel comfortable with it.” Like most things in life, the less we know about wildlife, the more likely we are to fear it. He’s concerned that children hear too many stories about animals being dangerous, and too few about their contributions to the planet.
Gros wants children to “understand and respect” the animal kingdom, so they’re moved to act when things like dwindling species impact our ecosystem. It appears his own children, three grown sons, share his fervor. John is a diving instructor. Tom is working on a bioengineering degree in San Diego while twin Jesse helps people explore places like Nepal and Peru through Insight Adventures.
“Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Starring Peter Gros” comes to Chandler Center for the Arts Sun, Feb. 19 at 3pm — so those of us who grew up with the TV show can take our own children and/or grandchildren to experience a live performance featuring Gros and several of his animal friends. It’s being presented with Arizona’s own Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium.
Gros notes that “wildlife footage and bloopers” comprise about one-third of the show, while another third features hand-raised wildlife appearing on stage (and interaction with volunteers called onstage to assist him). The other third involves “positive stories about good things happening in the environment” like pockets of rainforests coming back to life.
Expect a few surprises, says Gros, because at least one creature will “fly over the audience and land on stage.” Sounds like even kids enamored with “Angry Birds” will find plenty to love.
Coming up: What’s new pussycat?