It’s a famous Wild Kingdom moment: Deep in the South American jungle, Marlin Perkins takes on an anaconda. In the episode “Giants of Dadanawa,” Marlin and the anaconda wrestle … and history was born.
Though you won’t catch today’s co-hosts wrestling any animals, the magic of this wildlife series lives on today in Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild. Sixty years after Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom’s premiere, the show has seen a lot of changes, from improved technology to new conservation efforts.
Someone who has a firsthand experience of these changes? Co-Host Peter Gros, who’s been with Wild Kingdom since 1985. Get Peter’s insight on how filming wildlife has changed and stayed the same over the years.
Filming Wild Kingdom classic series
When Wild Kingdom started in 1963, it paved the way for nature programs for generations to come. For the first time, the public was immersed in the action and saw animals in their natural habitats.
But with the time’s limited technology, the Wild Kingdom crew had to directly interact with wild animals to get them on film.
“Filming was more hands-on back then because that’s the way research was done,” Peter said. “This was pre-digital, and they didn’t have the capability to track something with a drone.”
Even so, careful consideration was put into place to always ensure the animals’ well-being was top of mind. Before an episode was shot, the Wild Kingdom team would receive videos and information from researchers, biologists or scientists working directly with the featured animal in the field. Then the team would analyze whether filming could be done without scaring the animals or injuring them. Only when this criteria was met would the crew go on location to film an episode.
“We would always meet with a biologist and talk to a local department of interior or fish and wildlife about the sort of research they were doing and how they would do it,” Peter said.
Talking to the experts ensured Co-Hosts Peter and Jim Fowler would be adequately prepared for any situation they could encounter. Because after all, these weren’t paid actors they were dealing with — they were wild animals!
On set: ‘Operation Alligator’
One of Peter’s first episodes was Season 24’s “Operation Alligator,” filmed in Grand Chenier, Louisiana. The Wild Kingdom crew boarded a boat and drifted up next to an alligator who was resting on top of the water. Then, Peter carefully pulled the alligator out of the water into the boat.
“The thing about alligators that I wasn’t aware of, is they rotate, and spin and they burn all this adrenaline and energy and then just go catatonic,” Peter said. “They lay there almost in a semi-sleep phase.”
Even though it may have looked chaotic on film, Peter was ready because of the preparation the crew did before heading out to the bayou.
“It looks like when you’re catching one, it’s stressful for Jim Fowler or me to get them. But they go into a catatonic state and you put a rubber band over their mouths. You examine them, measure their teeth and do the research that needs to be done. And then you gently slip them back over the side, cut the rubber band off and away they go.”
Protecting animals always top of mind
The safety of animals and the Wild Kingdom crew has always been the top consideration for production.
“Our main goal back in the ’60s when Marlin and Jim were filming and in the ’80s before I joined them, was always to be sure we weren’t doing anything harmful to wildlife,” Peter said. “Now it’s just that much easier to film wildlife. Not only do we not do harm, oftentimes they don’t even know we’re filming them.”
One huge change for filming is for underwater animals. Peter recalls filming sea turtles and sea snakes in Australia for the classic series. He dove in the water with 80 pounds of filming equipment swimming with the cameras and the wildlife. Being immersed in their habitat, the sea snakes even came up to him and played with his diving mask.
But filming underwater is more than swimming around. To get the best angles, “you’d have to get in the water and scuba dive and lay silently on the bottom to film when the animals came by,” Peter said.
Today’s method is a lot easier. “Now you have a GoPro, which is half the size of my hand, hanging off a pole over the side of the boat. You can get great under-the-sea shots.”
Not only does the crew no longer have to lug a giant camera underwater, but the animals are also none the wiser that a beloved nature show is filming in their neighborhood.
“Everything is smaller, it’s digital and it’s much more forgiving and easier to film wildlife. And most importantly, it’s much less intrusive for wildlife,” Peter said.
When animals need to be examined
Occasionally, there is a need to catch and release animals, which is a hands-on process. For example, a lion that biologists need to tag and relocate because it’s wandering a little too close to where people live and farm. Later, the animal is released back into the wild where experts ensure there’s plenty of prey for them to survive.
“In the past, we would have to rent an airplane and get up and circle around and look with binoculars to try and spot it,” Peter said. “The lions used to be tranquilized with a dart about the size of my thumb and they weren’t very accurate. So, in some cases, the animal was netted first.” In that case, the lion would be lured in with food, given a tranquilizer and then relocated to a safer area.
Now, drones are used to see where the lions are and often, the animal isn’t aware of the drone’s presence. Once located, a team of biologists and veterinarians aerially tranquilize them with Telinject, a very fine needle driven by air, that is barely felt by the lion. Then the lion has a complete veterinary check to ensure good health and well-being before being released back into the wild.
“There’s just not as much hands-on grabbing, tackling and things they used to have to do when they did research then because with today’s technology, it’s just not necessary,” Peter said.
Filming techniques for Protecting the Wild
But some methods that worked in classic episodes, such as puffin decoys, are still being used today.
In 1979, Marlin Perkins traveled to Newfoundland, Canada, to learn about research to reestablish the puffin at its former breeding sites, including Eastern Egg Island, Maine. One way the researchers looked to bring the puffins back to Maine was to show them that there were already birds of a feather gathered there by using lifelike puffin decoys.
“Puffins are very social birds, so to get them to return to this small, rocky island, they made these wonderful decoys,” Peter said. “So, when they’re looking for a home to return to, it looks like they’ve already established a colony there.”
In the Protecting the Wild episode, “Puffin Island,” Peter and Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant visit Easter Egg Island where the puffins are coming to nest, lay their eggs and feed. Dr. Rae even gets hands-on with the decoys by painting one for the island.
“On the show, you can see actual living puffins pecking at decoy puffins because they look so realistic, so there’s the idea that there are other of my kind,” Peter said.
“The decoy project has been instrumental and is now being used across the world where they’re trying to reintroduce birds. It’s a crucial part of the success of the reintroduction of the puffins.”
Each episode of Protecting the Wild shows viewers the creative ways researchers are working to conserve and protect these wild animals, whether it’s using decoys, technology or direct encounters with the animals.
“The way we’re doing shows now is we point out in great detail exactly what we’re doing. We go to great lengths to do so,” Peter said.
This shows viewers how research methods help the wild animals, such as how accelerated growth for tortoises raised in a zoo allows them to be protected from predators when they’re released, as seen in the episode, “Desert-Dwelling Tortoises.”
“In some cases, we’re altering behavior but we’re never actually injuring or hurting any of the animals involved with the projects,” Peter said.
Close encounters with wildlife
Today, Peter still works very closely with wildlife, keeping in mind the different needs and wants of each animal.
For example, black bears have a stomach that is never full, so it’s important that they don’t get too comfortable with humans. When recently working with black bear cubs, Peter said the bears only encountered humans when they were tranquilized to be rehabilitated.
“That’s negative reinforcement. ‘Humans hurt’ was the message they got the rest of the time. They had no positive association with people at all,” Peter said.
This discourages bears from traveling into your backyard and looking for food. By reinforcing negative experiences with humans, they’ll stay away. In each show, Wild Kingdom wants to show viewers what to do and what not to do to not only ensure your safety, but also the health and safety of the animal. For example, don’t leave food outdoors because it may entice a hungry bear.
“This also replaces the idea of fear of wildlife with respect,” Peter said.
Other animals, such as the California condor, are ok for researchers to handle because these animals only eat carrion and aren’t interested in coming near humans. Even so, the care team ensures the condors don’t create a bond with humans.
When Peter watched a care team hand feed these birds, they used hand puppets that looked like condors. “They thought they were being fed by mom,” Peter said.
Peter’s love of wildlife continues
Through working with researchers or going out in an animal’s natural habitat, Peter is still interacting with wildlife in the new series. Though he may not be lugging heavy camera equipment underwater or wrestling an alligator anymore, he says that’s quite alright.
“I’m very happy not to be part of restraining an animal that weighs four times as much as I do,” Peter said.
But he’s still thankful to have close encounters with wildlife, such as diving in California’s Monterrey Bay to film an episode about otters.
“I happened to have a harbor seal with yellow-marked fins come by while we were down filming the otters,” Peter said. “The harbor seal came over grabbed the end of my fin and decided to play with it like a toy and yank on it for about three minutes or so. I had this interaction of a wild harbor seal that had no fear of me.”
Even as research and filming methods progress Peter says, “I have a feeling there’s still going to be plenty of interaction with wildlife.”
Watch new episodes of Protecting the Wild, Saturday mornings on NBC’s “The More You Know Programming Block.”
Plus, discover more about filming the classic series in this story with Peter Drowne, director of photography and field protection for Wild Kingdom from 1974-1987.