Long before Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, or the various and sundry National Geographic specials, there was Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Marlin hosted the weekly show from 1963 to 1985 with his co-host Jim Fowler. Later Jim and Marlin were joined by Stan Brock and Peter Gros. After Marlin left, Jim, Stan, and Peter kept the show going until 1988.
People liked to joke how it was Jim - a quarter of a century Marlin's junior - who usually got saddled with doing all the wild and crazy things like tagging an elk by jumping out of a helicopter. But considering their age difference, Marlin certainly did his share of the work, too. And it really did include stuff like wrestling alligators and netting irritated jaguars that he and Jim had to relocate.
Whether it was a show about the elephants from Africa's Okavango Swamp or scientists studying fowl cholera in the Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River of Nebraska, Wild Kingdom was always good family entertainment. You always knew that when you watched a film clip of a lion stalking his prey, the baby gazelle would get away.
In many ways the unsung hero (although always credited) was photographer Warren Garst who filmed the wildlife footage for all the shows. Now you will sometimes read on the Fount of All Knowledge that Wild Kingdom episodes used staged shots with tame animals. That is an oversimplification of a practice for many wildlife documentaries, particularly in a day when camera equipment was far more bulky than today. It was well known - and well-accepted - that some scenes on wildlife films had to be reenacted to add continuity and to help tell the story. But reshooting a capture is not practical with many animals and many of the capture scenes involved both actual footage from the field spliced with some staged shots. For instance, a shot of an elephant charging head on toward the viewer would one of Warren's field shots but the camera cutting to the jeep backing up or showing a close-up of the worried face of the driver would most likely have been shot separately. Restaged shots are easily recognized, particularly if the shot would have meant Warren would have been left behind to be stomped into the ground.
In his closing comments Marlin made sure to speak of the dangers that human encroachment caused to the animals and how it hastened the destruction of the natural habitats. But he always did his best to take a positive and optimistic outlook and would mention when a region or a country he was visiting had established a new wildlife refuge or game park.
Of course, just as the wildlife refuges and game parks provide protection for the country's many animal species, so too can we always rely on the affordable and complete protection provided by Mutual of Omaha.