Throughout history, the natural world has captivated humanity with folklore and fables dedicated to all kinds of animal life – and when it comes to highlighting the plight of our planet’s most vulnerable species, few programs have had as much impact as Wild Kingdom Mutual of Omaha. First launched in 1963, this documentary series has captivated television audiences for 25 uninterrupted years, instilling a deep passion for wildlife in the hearts of countless viewers.
While the program returned to air in 2002, then again in 2013, recent years have seen a hiatus in content – ie. so far. Today at 1pm EST, Omaha Wild Kingdom Mutual Wildlife Conservancy makes its grand debut on RFD-TV and RFD-TV Now, featuring the first of ten wildlife-focused episodes presented by Peter Gross, wildlife expert and Wild Kingdom Mutual of Omaha co-owner since 1985
For ForbesGross offers insight into the history of his esteemed career while highlighting some of the best destinations on earth for wildlife tourism.
When did you first become interested in wildlife and what steps did you take to host Wild Kingdom?
Growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley, I was surrounded by a wide variety of North American wildlife. Watching Wild Kingdom Mutual of Omaha as a child motivated me to further my education in wildlife care and pursue a career in wildlife conservation education.
My interest and experience led me to design innovative wildlife exhibits where animals roam freely on small islands while people watch them from rafts in the sea. I then became a spokesperson for the natural world as I developed programs to breed endangered species, which led me to appear in The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1984
It was at Carson’s studio where I met one of my childhood idols, Jim Fowler, and got the chance of a lifetime. Jim explained to me that Marlin Perkins was stepping down from his hosting duties and the show needed a new co-host. I literally jumped at the chance because I thought Jim and Marlin had the best job in the world and I knew Wild kingdom it will give me an opportunity to educate myself at the national level.
In 1985 I officially joined as co-director of Wild kingdom and filmed my first episode of Operation Alligator in Louisiana.
What are some simple everyday actions people can take to support wildlife conservation?
- Research your local endangered species and share your findings with your friends and family.
- Take a trip to a national wildlife sanctuary, park, or other open space. These protected lands are home to native wildlife, birds, fish and plants. Take your visit a step further by volunteering at your local nature center or wildlife refuge.
- Create a wildlife-friendly environment at home. Consider your yard a wildlife habitat, plant pollinator-friendly plants and other native plants favored by local wildlife. Use trash cans with locking lids. Keep your pets indoors and secure pet doors at night to keep wild animals out of your home.
- Watch nature shows that help you stay informed about the latest happenings in wildlife conservation. Our new series is all about wildlife success stories and what leading organizations are doing to protect our wildlife and natural world.
What is your current favorite animal and has it changed over your lifetime?
I have had the good fortune to travel and photograph wildlife all over the world for the past 30 years. It’s hard to choose just one animal. However, here are some memorable moments with some of my favorite animals:
- Diving with wild dolphins that have become trusting and playful. It is an experience I will never forget.
- The uncertainty of being in the water with great white sharks in Australia, as opposed to swimming with a manatee in Florida that gently nudged my mask with its protruding nose in what seemed like a friendly “Who and how are you?”
- My favorite of the big cats is the tiger. Having participated in species survival programs, it was a thrill for me to search for endangered tigers in Nepal riding high on the back of an elephant. After a few days, I finally caught a glimpse of a tail when one disappeared into the Chitwan National Forest. It was quite exciting to see even for a moment the Royal Bengal Tiger in its natural habitat.
- The arctic polar bear we photographed on the ice streams of Point Barrow, Alaska definitely makes the list. Watching these magnificent polar bears and what they have to do to survive in such harsh climates is amazing.
In your lifetime, you have created a huge number of breeding programs for endangered species. Which ones do you think have been particularly successful?
All spotted and striped cats were on endangered species lists in the late 1970s. By the 1980s, our endangered tiger breeding programs had become very successful, as had those with giraffes.
What are some countries that you think are underrated right now when it comes to wildlife tourism?
Iquitos, Peru creates ecotourism jungle lodges that are only accessible by boat along the tributaries of the Amazon River. I had the good fortune to accompany 39 seventh graders and their chaperones for a week of learning in the rainforest. Much lighter travel can be achieved in the rainforests of Costa Rica. And for guaranteed wildlife viewing up close and personal, there’s no better place than the Galapagos Islands.
What is one of the most memorable wildlife moments you have seen in your career?
Rafting on the Zambezi River. After settling in at the base of Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, we paddled a section of the Class Five Plus river to photograph the wildlife. After capsizing numerous times, we pulled ashore to re-stick our boat. As I waited for the glue to dry, one of our guides turned to me and said, “Mr. Gross, you must swim back to the boat faster because the crocodiles are waiting for you along the shore.’
One of the biggest moments of my career is happening now. The opportunity to share conservation success stories across our country in our new series, Omaha Wild Kingdom Mutual Wildlife Conservancyis a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will never forget.