Long a TV programming staple, animal documentary shows are a dime a dozen. You wouldn’t need to spend much time channel surfing before inevitably finding someone getting up close and personal with nature, be it something informative and refined, in the vein of the BBC’s Planet Earth or PBS’ Nature, or the opposite, like whatever goofy hillbilly gator-wrasslin’ reality show the History Channel is probably airing at this very moment. You may even come across Wild Kingdom, tucked away on Animal Planet, and not differentiate it at all, but for decades the pioneering program, which ran for 25 years between 1963 and 1988 before being resuscitated the cable channel in 2002, stood head and shoulders above its competition, influencing generations of kids to pursue careers in science and wild life conservation and, yes, helping to establish some of the now familiar it-done-bit-me sensationalism we’re so familiar with today.
The program was originally known as Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, plugging the insurance company who remained the show’s sole sponsor for the next quarter century. It was the brainchild of the firm’s CEO, V.J. Skutt, and zoologist Marlin Perkins, who would be the host of the program until his health began to fail him in 1985. They couldn’t have asked for a more credible host; Perkins wasn’t flashy, (a critic once praised him as “a non-professional showman”), but he was respected zoologists who had proved his ability to translate a lifelong passion for animals to an audience by hosting NBC’s live Zoo Parade from 1949 to 1955. After the show’s cancellation, he returned to zoo-keeping and research, even accompanying Sir Edmund Hillary up Mount Everest to investigate purported yeti footprints, which he determined to be nothing more than tracks of foxes and other animals enlarged and deformed by the sun.
A few short years later in 1963, Wild Kingdom hit the airwaves, being broadcast by NBC during their Sunday primetime before going into syndication in 1971. In contrast to Zoo Parade, a studio-based program featuring the kind of now cliché talk show-esque animal segments, Wild Kingdom followed Perkins into the bush, in living color, transporting millions of kids and adults alike from their living rooms to exotic locales in over 50 countries in order to observe fascinating creatures in their natural habitat. The show was a hit, garnering a number of Emmys and a lot of publicity for Mutual of Omaha, especially as it began to be seen on stations around the globe, but the real impact of the program was in the young minds it molded. Perkins’ enthusiasm was apparent, as was his belief in the need for the protection of endangered species, long before it became a cause célèbre.
While it’s cited by filmmakers, scientists and activists alike as an inspiration, as one of the genre’s pioneers, it also predicted some of the more extreme animal shows, like The Crocodile Hunter and its imitators. It was TV after all, so danger, or at least the perception of it, always played well. Perkins, a reptile specialist who became one of only a few people to survive a bite from the feared African Gaboon viper, often let smaller, non-venomous snakes bite him simply for effect and, in one of the series’ most remembered sequences, he and longtime co-host Jim Fowler have a harrowing encounter with an anaconda, which, he later recalled, got much of its drama from the magic of editing. That’s a very small part of Wild Kingdom’s legacy though; its real contribution to the medium is in its adventurous scientific spirit and unending fascination with the world around us.