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Jim Fowler, naturalist who brought animals to TV on ‘Wild Kingdom,’ dies at 89

Jim Fowler, the towering wildlife enthusiast who brought pumas, anacondas and birds of prey to prime-time television in the long-running “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” has died at his home in Connecticut. He was 89.

Fowler dangled from helicopters, swam side by side with sharks and squirmed from the tightening coils of a python as viewers across America watched him and his partner, Marlin Perkins, trudge across savannas and wade through tide pools in a quest to take viewers to places they’d probably never see with their own eyes.

To baby-boomer America, the program opened the gates to the animal kingdom and ushered in an era of animal-friendly programming, including “The Crocodile Hunter” and Animal Planet shows.

Fowler, who became known to millions more as a frequent guest on “The Merv Griffin Show” as well as “The Tonight Show,” first with with Johnny Carson and then with Jay Leno, died Wednesday. His son Mark, a filmmaker for the National Geographic Channel, told the Washington Post that the cause of Fowler’s death was complications from heart ailments.

Born April 9, 1930, in Albany, Ga., amid the cotton plantations and wide-open fields along the Flint River, Fowler was drawn early to wildlife, encountering it in abundance at his parents’ 680-acre farm. With time, he transformed the farm into a wildlife sanctuary, where he trained birds, watched the distant outlines of deer and became fascinated with snakes.

Raised as a Quaker, Fowler attended Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., where he studied zoology and became a star on the school’s baseball team. A hulking figure at 6 feet 6, Fowler said he turned down offers from the New York Yankees and the then-Philadelphia Athletics.

After graduating, Fowler befriended Perkins at a raptor sanctuary. Though Perkins was 25 years older, the two became soul mates.

On television, Perkins was the knowledgeable host, Fowler the energetic wow-would-you-look-at-that sidekick. The two traveled the world together, using guides, wardens and naturalists to take them to the nesting grounds or dens where they could encounter wildlife face to face.

Based on the success of a pilot, the show originally ran from 1963 to 1971. It was equal parts adventure and travel, and arrived at a time of growing concern about the thinning population of wildlife, creatures on the edge of extinction and animals cooped up in cages that cut off their instinctive need to roam.

“Wild Kingdom” was criticized by some for being overly intrusive, confronting a herd of elephants with an entire film team rather than watching the beasts passively from afar. And some viewers winced when majestic birds and reptiles as small as a cellphone where thrust in front of the cameras.

But Fowler maintained that the benefits of the show — stoking interest in wildlife — far outweighed the gimmicks and the fun-with-animals gags.

“The real challenge today is to affect the public’s attitude and make them care,” he told the Boston Globe in a 1997 interview.

Fowler is survived by his wife, Betsey, son Mark, daughter Carrie Fowler Stowe, and two grandchildren. Perkins died in 1986.

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