Jim Fowler, a native of Dougherty County, enjoyed a long career as cohost and then host of the popular television series Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, which aired from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s. Fowler dedicated his life to educating the public about wildlife species throughout the world and preserving the environments in which animals live.
James Fowler was born near Albany on April 9, 1930. The son of a soil scientist, Fowler grew up on Mud Creek Plantation, the family farm near Albany, and in Falls Church, Virginia, where he frequented the nearby Four Mile Run stream. (As an adult, Fowler participated in efforts to revitalize the stream.) His childhood experiences in both places convinced him early in life to become a naturalist. During the early 1950s, he earned degrees in zoology and geology from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and then worked in Florida at a raptor sanctuary and in Africa as an animal trainer for a film production. Fowler began graduate work, taking on a research project in Brazil to study the harpy, the world’s largest eagle, along the Amazon River. But when the opportunity for a television career developed, he gave up his academic ambitions.
Fowler appeared on NBC’s Today show in 1961 to talk about harpy eagles. Marlin Perkins, the well-respected director of several major American zoos, saw Fowler on that show and invited him to cohost the pilot for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The show debuted in January 1963 on NBC. Wild Kingdom was filmed at locations all over the world and featured Fowler and Perkins interacting with wild animals in their natural habitats. Over the next twenty-three years of original productions, the show engaged millions of viewers in the natural drama of the wild, winning more than forty major awards, including four Emmys. Perkins left Wild Kingdom for health reasons in 1985 and died the following year. Fowler served as sole host for the final year of the show, which continued to be aired in syndication until 1988. Animal Planet revived the series, with new hosts, in 2002.
During his years on Wild Kingdom, Fowler also regularly appeared with animals on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He hosted the series Mutual of Omaha’s Spirit of Adventure, and in 1988 he began giving regular wildlife reports for NBC’s Today show. In 1993 Fowler published Jim Fowler’s Wildest Places on Earth, which features narratives and photographs of wildlife in remote locations.
Fowler designed the Wild Animal Park, one of two accredited zoos in Georgia, which opened in 1977 at the Parks at Chehaw in Albany. The zoo features indigenous and exotic wildlife in exhibits that mimic the animals’ natural habitats and are accessible to the public by boardwalks. The Wild Animal Park also offers amphitheater programs, a children’s petting zoo, and a reptile house.
In 1992 Fowler became executive director of Mutual of Omaha’s Wildlife Heritage Trust (later Wildlife Heritage Center), an organization dedicated to environmental education and conservation. By 1988 he had founded the Fowler Center for Wildlife Education, a traveling exhibition based in New York, for which he served as president. He also served as honorary president of the Explorers Club, an international society dedicated to field research and exploration, which awarded him the prestigious Explorers Club Medal in 1994. In 2003 Fowler received the Lindbergh Award for significant contributions toward the balance of nature and technology, as well as an honorary doctorate from Earlham College.
Fowler’s approach to wildlife conservation and education drew criticism from some scientists and animal rights groups, who claimed that his sensationalized interactions with wild animals, including bringing them into television studios, were harmful to the animals and misleading to the public. Fowler countered such objections with the argument that people must connect directly with animals before they respond to the plight of habitat loss and other forms of environmental degradation. According to Fowler, “We need to make arguments for saving wildlife by how it will benefit us.”
Fowler was married to Betsey Fowler, a wildlife artist, and had two children, Carrie and Mark. In his later years, he continued to travel around the country, educating audiences about wildlife conservation. He died on May 8, 2019, at his family’s home in Connecticut.