In the 1960s and 1970s there was no mass cable television. There were no channels devoted to one lone subject, like nature documentaries. Thus, the fix for lovers of animals and adventures came down to a foreign import, the underwater television specials of Jacques Cousteau, and the weekly television series, Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. It was a nature show for the family, and did not feature computer graphics and slow motion shots of animals killing each other.
It was hosted by the retired director of the St. Louis Zoo, Marlin Perkins, and co-hosted by naturalist Jim Fowler and several others over the years. Each episode focused on the peculiarities of an animal, and ended with Perkins stating that this or that was important to ‘the Wild Kingdom.’ While I loved watching the show as a child, over the years, I had let it slip through the crannies of my aging. Then, a while back, while selling some old books and DVDs to a Half Price Books store, I noticed two DVDs containing 10 half-hour episodes each of the old show. One was on The African Wild and the other was on Mammals Of North America.
Both packages contain three disks. The African Wild has three episodes on Dian Fossey and her gorillas on Disk 1. Disk 2 has three episodes on elephants, and the third disk has three episodes on capturing African game, and a fourth featuring memorable moments from the show. Mammals Of North America has three episodes on polar bears and seals. Disk 2 has an episode on arctic mammals, one on otters, and one on training seals. The final disk has four episodes: one on desert life in southern Arizona, another on bighorn sheep in Utah, another on a roundup of ponies on an island on the Delmarva peninsula, and the final one an episode on why conservation is a key. In many ways, this episode and the whole series were years, if not decades, ahead of the curve.
Often lampooned by comedians, one of the favorite moments in many episodes came when Perkins would speak to the camera (or in voiceover) in a monotone, while observing Fowler engaged in some dangerous activity, often with a dangerous animal like an alligator. This would be phrased in a manner like, "While I survey the area with Park Ranger Smith, Jim has his hands full with an angry grizzly bear. Attaboy, Jim, you show him who’s boss." But, the show was always family friendly. It almost always avoided showing the moment of a kill.
This is not to say that modern nature documentaries should be sanitized to the point of cloying sentimentality, only that there is a line that is too often crossed in the name of gratuitous violence for the sake of mere violence, not anything educational. The producers of Wild Kingdom, however, never crossed that line.
In looking at these old episodes I got the sense of being taken back in time to my youth, a time when the world was captured in a television screen — even the small black and white one my family owned. I miss those times, but watching these shows revived not only a past worth reviving, but a future worth embracing; and one made better, in no small part, by the people responsible for such a fine series.
The DVD has no special features to speak of, but, really, what could be added? All in all, the Wild Kingdom DVDs are small treasures that, for the meager price I paid for each, are a hardy investment. Most interesting, although in a negative way, was how many of the Arctic themed shows are vestiges of the past. As example, one of the episodes deals with polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba, scrounging for food in human garbage dumps while waiting for pack ice to form in Hudson’s Bay. Nowadays, a few decades later, that ice never forms at all. Sadly, the DVDs evince not only their show’s history, but a history of earth as extinct as the dinosaurs. Nonetheless, enjoy the moments, for they will not come again. Rest in peace, Marlin!