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Why it’s not safe to snuggle with a Gila Monster, or, the life of Jim Fowler

Jim Fowler died at the age of eighty-nine, quietly, in his home in Connecticut. I only learned this sad news yesterday, though he died in 2019. [He’s pictured above, on the left, wondering why he has to work with Marlin Perkins at all.]

Still, it was shocking.

I assumed he had been killed by wild hippos sometime in the mid-to-late-eighties.

The dark days before David Attenborough

For those of you who didn’t grow up in the 1960s or 1970s, or weren’t in North America, you won’t remember that it was Jim Fowler who did all the dangerous work on a little show called Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. It aired (originally) in the sixties, but I would have watched it in the seventies when it was in reruns.

As a kid, Sunday was a big night for TV. The main event was The Wonderful World of Disney, an anthology show that aired programs like Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and Swiss Family Robinson. (Some of my faves.)

Before Disney: Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. (You always have to include the insurance company name in the title for some reason. I find this ironic because the behavior of Jim was certainly in violation of any their terms. I dunno. Maybe Marlin Perkins had taken out a secret life insurance policy on Jim.)

Marlin Perkins

The nature show was probably terrible, especially by the standards of today. Still, it was thrilling to see animals from other ecosystems. (Long before I knew what an ecosystem was.) These creatures were exotic to my brother and me, in southwestern Ontario. The shows were surprisingly educational in other ways. The main thing I learned: don’t trust dudes with mustaches.*

Perkins [picture above on the right, encouraging Jim to “touch his lizard” was the host. He sported an extremely suspicious mustache, and hair that looked like it was made of Bakelite. Perkins would narrate the show from the safety of the studio, while Jim put his life on the line to entertain (and educate) us fortunate kids in North America.

I would crack up my family by imitating his nasal drawl.

While they’re in Kenya:

“Jim will now jump out of the helicopter and give the rhino a big kiss. The rhino is a territorial creature, but virtually blind, so Jim will be quite safe.”

Or while they’re visiting the Amazon:

“From the safety of his dugout canoe, Jim gets a closer look at the anaconda. The snake really likes Jim and gives him a big hug.”

Back in Africa:

“They may not look like it, but hippos are one of the most dangerous species on the planet. After the tranquilizer has had a chance to take effect, Jim and the park wardens will attempt to … oh no, they’re running for their lives.”

You may want to accuse me of ripping off Johnny Carson. I assure you, I was not allowed up that late. Jim later became a regular guest on The Tonight Show: here’s one where a monkey acts up. (I’m just now realizing this early exposure to simians may have influenced me in the writing of Marvellous Hairy.)

So, RIP you magnificent bastard, Jim.

Caveat: I have fact-checked very little of this.

*This changed in the early 80s when Magnum, P.I. debuted. The overwhelming trustworthiness of Tom Selleck’s mustache managed  to eclipse even the perfidy of John Hillerman’s painter’s brush ‘stache.  

cover art of The Fridgularity and Marvellous Hairy, both by Mark A. Rayner

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