Jim Fowler, who with the zoologist Marlin Perkins introduced generations of television viewers to wild animals filmed in their natural habitats on the long-running documentary series Wild Kingdom, died Wednesday at his home in the village of Rowayton in Norwalk, Conn. He was 89.
His son, J. Mark Fowler, said the cause was complications of heart ailments.
Mr. Fowler was a key part of Wild Kingdom (also known as Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom), which had its premiere on NBC in January, 1963, when seeing elephants, cougars and other exotic beasts on television was still a novelty.
Mutual of Omaha, the insurance company, had advertised on a previous show featuring Mr. Perkins called Zoo Parade, and it agreed to underwrite a new show that ventured into the wild. Mr. Fowler, a naturalist, had been working with birds of prey, and Mr. Perkins had seen him on the Today show exhibiting an imposing harpy eagle, a bird native to the Central and South American rain forests. He invited Mr. Fowler to join him on Wild Kingdom.
Mr. Perkins, 25 years older than Mr. Fowler, was the host, and Mr. Fowler was his sidekick, often doing the bulk of the work – or so it seemed to viewers of early single-camera episodes. But that had actually not been the case, Mr. Fowler said in a 2015 interview with Connecticut Magazine.
“Marlin was just as active,” he said, “but the camera cutting back and forth between us gave viewers a false impression. Once we had more cameras, it looked better.”
The two travelled the world, often working with local game wardens or naturalists as they trapped wild animals to relocate them for safety reasons or tagged them for research purposes.
In the days before adventure travel was common, it was eye-opening stuff for countless Americans, a look at the wonders of the natural world that seemed simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.
Now and then, things could get a bit too terrifying. There was the time a female elephant apparently thought Mr. Fowler was a threat to her calf and charged at him, joined by the rest of the herd. Mr. Fowler knew that some dangerous situations could be defused simply by staying still (as he had done once when an anaconda swallowed his arm). This was not one of those occasions; he ran for his truck and barely escaped.
“You can bluff a male elephant,” he told The Omaha World-Herald in 2013. “Not a female. That cow tried to kill me.”
Wild Kingdom ran on NBC until 1970, then was syndicated by Mutual of Omaha and continued until 1988. By then, Mr. Fowler was also well known to late-night viewers of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson; he was a guest almost 50 times, almost invariably bringing an unusual animal with him.
His Tonight Show appearances were informative but also funny: Mr. Fowler often proved to be a fine straight man for Mr. Carson, as in 1983, when he brought on a large crane named Stanley.
“It’s been imprinted to humans,” Mr. Fowler said, referring to the way animals identify themselves as part of a species, “so probably will never have any courtship behaviour.”
Mr. Carson responded, “I know how Stanley feels.”
James Mark Fowler was born on April 9, 1930, in Albany, Ga. His father, Earl, was a soil scientist for the federal Soil Conservation Service, and his mother, Ada (Frazeur) Fowler, was a homemaker who had been active in the women’s suffrage movement.
Mr. Fowler trained birds of prey as a boy on the family farm. He graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., with degrees in zoology and ornithology. An imposing man at almost 6-foot-6, he had an offer to play professional baseball. He also considered graduate school. But instead, he elected to work with animals in various capacities, including travelling to the Amazon to study those harpy eagles, before landing on Wild Kingdom.
Mr. Fowler became a regular wildlife correspondent for the Today show in 1988, and appeared on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, Late Night With Conan O’Brien and other shows.
As the trend among wildlife researchers and documentarians gravitated toward passive observation, he was sometimes criticized for his hands-on approach and for exposing wild animals to the glare of television studios. But he defended the showmanship as the best way to encourage people to become invested in the cause of conservation.
“The real challenge today,” he told The Boston Globe in 1997, “is to affect the public’s attitude and make them care.”
Mr. Fowler married Betsey Burhans, a wildlife artist, in 1970. He leaves her. In addition to her and his son, he also leaves a daughter, Carrie Fowler Stowe, and two grandchildren. Mr. Perkins died in 1986 at 81.
Mark Fowler, who works in nature and wildlife protection, said he was constantly amazed at the number of people he encountered who were influenced by Wild Kingdom, especially in the non-profit, or non-governmental organization, world.
“All the heads of all the NGOs that are out there saving wildlife,” he said in a telephone interview, “They all tell me, ‘He’s the reason I do this.’”