Florida roadside zoo showman starred on TV for 50 years
NORWALK, Connecticut––Few viewers of the NBC nature documentary television series Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom during the original run of the program, 1963-1971, might have expected that host Jim Fowler would die quietly at home at age 89––but he did, on May 8, 2019, in Norwalk, Connecticut.
An old-style showman, Fowler handled countless species, both on screen and in personal presentations, from raptors to giant snakes, often in wild or semi-wild settings but usually using trained animals in staged action, some of it abusive.
For Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Marlin Perkins most often described the animals and the action, but both before and after Fowler partnered with Perkins, Fowler usually did his own narration.
While Fowler’s hands-on style was directly opposite to the hands-off approach that long ago came to be recognized as best practice in producing nature documentaries, he can be credited with introducing several generations of Americans to wildlife observation and appreciation––albeit mostly not from what might today be recognized as an “animal rights” perspective.
Though the family name “Fowler” indicates ancestral involvement in falconing, or otherwise raising and hunting birds, Jim Fowler grew up in a family who had little to do with animals.
Shaved two years off his age
“He was born on April 9, 1932, in Albany to Earl Fowler, a soil scientist for the pecan industry, and Ada Frazeur Fowler, a housewife and sometime Latin teacher. The couple moved to Georgia from Indiana in 1919,” reported Mary Ann Anderson in a 2003 profile for Forbes magazine.
Most published sources have mentioned the 1932 birth date, but The New York Times and MSN agreed Jim Fowler was actually born on April 9, 1930, which would be consistent with his stated age of 89.
“In the late 1930s, Earl Fowler moved the family to Falls Church, Virginia,” Anderson continued, “where he worked with the U.S. Dairy Association in nearby Beltsville, Maryland.”
Growing to 6’6”, Jim Fowler “graduated from Westtown School in 1947, a Quaker college preparatory school in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and Earlham College, in Richmond, Indiana, in 1952,” according to sources cited by Wikipedia, including his official Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom biography and the 1952 Earlham yearbook.
Associated Press on July 1, 1948 distributed a photograph of Fowler studying at Earlham toward the end of his freshman year with an owl on his shoulder. According to the caption, “Jim, of Hyattsvillle, Maryland, got the bird after his mother was shot.”
MSN obituarist Mike Barnes reported that Jim Fowler “attended high school in Falls Church, where he “excelled on his high school baseball and football teams, and was offered contracts by the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees.”
ANIMALS 24-7 found no evidence that Fowler ever attended high school in Falls Church. Also, whether either the Phillies or the Yankees actually tried to sign Jim Fowler as a minor league prospect appears to be undocumented. Two other men named Jim Fowler were also regarded as professional pitching prospects, in other parts of the U.S. and Canada, during the same time frame.
However, the Earlham Hall of Fame web site affirms that “Jim Fowler was an All-Conference athlete in all three sports he played during his days at Earlham. He was a four-year letter winner in football, where he held the passing records during his years. His ability in the javelin enabled him to hold not only school records, but also conference records during his four years in track. In addition to football and track, Fowler was also a four-year baseball player. While at Earlham, Fowler was a captain for all three sports teams at some point.”
Most of the dozens of local newspaper accounts mentioning Fowler prior to his full-time television career concern his accomplishments as an amateur baseball, basketball, and high-level softball player.
Jim Fowler & John Hamlet
Jim Fowler, approaching age 30, was still chiefly known as an athlete. But Fowler had earned degrees in zoology and geology, and was already pursuing his calling as a naturalist.
After graduation, Fowler told Anderson, he returned to Albany, Georgia.
“But earlier, in the mid-1950s,” Fowler recalled, “I had run into a fellow I knew from Maryland who was an extraordinary wildlife behaviorist. His name was John Hamlet, and he had worked for the Fish & Wildlife Service. I was one of those kids who used to run around with him up in Maryland. We went up into the cliffs of the Appalachians, tagging peregrine falcons and that sort of thing.”
Hamlet, 1911-1982, though little remembered today, was perhaps as influential in kindling interest in wildlife and conservation as Fowler himself, albeit chiefly through the younger people he influenced, and recognizing that much of his work might be politely described as ethically nuanced.
John Hamlet proteges
Among Hamlet’s proteges, besides Fowler, were Brian McDonald (1927-2018), a falconer and author of books about falconing who was among Hamlet’s assistants before Fowler, and Mary Louise Grossman, who met Hamlet as a five-year-old, when he spoke to her kindergarten class, inspiring her lifelong interest in birds and nature.
Mary Louise Grossman, with her husband Shelly, much later formed a writer/photographer team who produced numerous books about nature and wildlife before Shelly Grossman’s death in 1975 at age 47.
Several of those books, including Birds of Prey of the World (1967) and Our Vanishing Wilderness (1969), included Hamlet as co-author. Our Vanishing Wilderness is often credited with helping to spark the late 20th century environmental movement.
Of all of Hamlet’s proteges, however, Jim Fowler became most famous.
Who was John Hamlet?
Born in the Black Hills of South Dakota, John Hamlet was grandson of a wagon train scout and son of a homesteader, rancher, and prospector. Hamlet took up falconing at age 14 after reading about it in National Geographic.
According to a 1956 newspaper account, “John Hamlet put himself through college by collecting snakes in Texas, Arizona, Mexico, and Honduras, selling them to pharmaceutical companies for their venom. After getting his master’s degree in zoology from Northwestern University in Chicago, he worked for the Biological Survey all over the U.S., and later for the Fish & Wildlife Service,” as Fowler remembered, after it was spun off from the Biological Survey in 1940.
This was during the time frame when the Biological Survey extirpated grey wolves from the Lower 48 states and turned to exterminating coyotes. To what extent Hamlet might have been involved in that work is unknown
“While on loan to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis,” the 1956 article continued, “John Hamlet traveled throughout the Pacific, studying the cynomologus monkeys (macaques) used in the research which developed the [Jonas] Salk vaccine [for polio]. On his return, he built a research center for the Foundation in Pritchardville, South Carolina and served as its director for seven years. Then in 1951 he returned to the Philippines to arrange for 1,500 cynomologus monkeys to be sent to the U.S. every month, a figure which was later raised to 2,600 a month, all males between the ages of three and five years.”
Leaving the vivisection supply business, and taking some of the monkeys with him, Hamlet in 1954 relocated to Ocala, Florida. There he founded a business called Birds of Prey as a breeding and training farm to serve falconers.
Since promoting falconry did not become the lucrative enterprise Hamlet had anticipated, Birds of Prey soon became a roadside zoo.
Birds of Prey led Fowler to TV
Having heard that someone was starting a business near Ocala involving birds of prey, and needing a job, Jim Fowler went looking for it.
“That turned out to be my mentor, John Hamlet,” Fowler told Anderson. “This was about five or six years after I met him, and I ended up going out to his ranch and knocking on the door. I knew it had to be his place because, sure enough, he had a cheetah and a big African vulture out there. John remembered me as soon as he came out of the door. Eventually he asked me to work for him, and that’s when I moved to Ocala and first started doing some things on television. That’s when Dave Garroway had a program called the Wide, Wide World in the late 1950s, and they had gone down to Silver Springs, just outside of Ocala, for filming.”
Fowler first worked with Marlin Perkins in 1957. Perkins, who had been director of the New York Zoo in Buffalo, New York, the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and the St. Louis Zoo, had become host of a television show called Zoo Parade, which aired on NBC from 1950 to 1957.
From Zoo Parade to Africa
“That was out of the Lincoln Park Zoo,” Fowler remembered to Anderson. “And when Zoo Parade eventually ran its course, Marlin went to Florida to work with Ross Allen, who was a friend of his. Ross owned the Reptile Institute at Silver Springs. Marlin and Ross had heard about the Birds of Prey exhibit where I was working, so while they were in Ocala, they came over to see the program. That’s when we first met.”
Fowler and Birds of Prey were featured in one of the last episodes of Zoo Parade, aired in July 1957.
Next, wrote Anderson, nature film director Ron Shanin (1921-1993) “came through Florida to film the birds of prey exhibit and the eagles that Fowler and Hamlet were training. Near the end of the shoot, after seeing that Fowler was quite adept at handling animals, Shanin asked him if he wanted to go to Africa to help make a film.”
Said Fowler, “In those days, I would have given my right arm to go to Africa, just like any zoologist. The deal was that I would pay my way over on a freighter, and that Shanin would take care of the expenses while we were on safari. We were going up to a very remote place in Angola where there weren’t very many people. I was game, I was up for it, and so I high-tailed it over there. I was on a freighter for twenty-seven days.”
Returning after nine months in Africa, Fowler visited Shelly and Mary Louise Grossman and their infant son Keith in Syracuse, New York, bringing along six African eagles, two hawks, and four falcons. Shelly Grossman photographed the visit.
Soon afterward, Fowler ventured to Guyana, which was then British Guiana, to participate in a study of harpy eagles, the largest eagle species.
Some Fowler obituaries indicate that he became the first person ever to capture a harpy eagle and bring the eagle back to the U.S. alive, but a syndicated “Skoal’s Freak of the Week” photograph and caption dated March 25, 1956 establishes that Birds of Prey already had a harpy eagle then, before Fowler went abroad.
But Fowler, therefore, would already have had experience in handling a harpy eagle, which in turn would account for his having been recruited to join the scientific expedition.
“The harpy can weigh up to twenty pounds and has a seven-foot wingspan,” Fowler told Anderson. “They’ll eat a thirty-pound howler monkey. I brought back three from South America and trained them, and in 1961 went on the Today show with them. It just so happened that Marlin Perkins was on the same program with Sir Edmund Hillary. Marlin saw me and recognized me from when we had met in Florida. About a week later, I got a call from him, asking me to go to Chicago to film the pilot for Wild Kingdom with those eagles.”
“Had to hose out the car”
Birds of Prey by that time had already folded. Hamlet took his animals to become first a resident attraction at a tourist trap called Weeki Watchee Mermaids, and then a founding attraction at Monkey Island in nearby Homosassa, which still exists.
Fowler meanwhile had relocated back to Albany, Georgia. He took with him to Chicago, in a small Citroen, “a cheetah named Arthur and two harpy eagles,” he recalled to Anderson.
“I also brought two anteaters named Lawrence and Florence,” he said, “and we all took off from Albany, Georgia, in that weird French car bound for Chicago. I had to hose out the car when I got there.”
Aired on January 9, 1963, the Wild Kingdom pilot episode was a success. The series that followed ran on NBC until 1971, aired in syndication from 1971 to 1988, and then returned as an Animal Planet series from September 2002 to May 2011.
Friend of Johnny Carson
Perkins (1905-1986) retired in 1985, but Fowler continued to host the program until age 80. He also hosted 12 episodes of Mutual of Omaha’s Spirit of Adventure, a nature travel series, which––like most of the Wild Kingdom series––was filmed on location around the world.
“Fowler, a four-time Emmy winner for his work on the nature programs, also made more than 100 appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” summarized MSN obituarist Barnes, “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,” a character played by actor Michael Richards, “out of his apartment on a 1997 episode of Seinfeld.”
Fowler said that when he went on The Tonight Show, Barnes recalled, 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.”
Mud Creek & Green Chimneys
Fowler and his wife of more than 50 years, Betsey, an artist, who survives him, took Carson and his family on an African safari tour after Carson retired in 1992.
This was just before Fowler served as a technical advisor during the filming of the Walt Disney Studios animated feature The Lion King (1994).
Late in life Fowler reportedly focused on raising exotic wildlife including ostriches, emus, zebras, and elands on his Mud Creek farm near Albany, Georgia; restored several old houses on the property; and was a frequent “Birds of Prey Day” wildlife exhibitor at Green Chimneys in Brewster, New York, a combination nature education center and home for troubled youth, operating since 1947.