Sunday, June 25, 2017 This Week's Paper

‘Wild Kingdom’

// Pantages Theatre becomes a different kind of 'animal house' on May 5

Celebrity zoologists abound on today's airwaves. And they all owe a huge debt of gratitude to “Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom,” the syndicated nature show that Marlin Perkins and sidekick Jim Fowler pioneered back in the '60s.

Peter Gros has been part of the “Wild Kingdom” crew since 1985 and can be seen on its latest incarnation, which airs as specials on Animal Planet. On May 5, he'll share his love for all things that fly, swim and slither in person, at Tacoma's Pantages Theater. So we gave him a ring to find out what critters might show up on stage with him.

Tacoma Weekly: Over the years - as you’ve seen the Croc Hunters and Jack Hannas - have you ever thought, “Posers!”

Peter Gros: (Laughs) No, actually not. ... My thinking is, generally, that as many shows that we have that are out there educating people about wildlife, the better off it’s gonna be. I think that the formats have changed a little bit. They’ve had to become more exciting. But, on the other hand, I think with the pace of today’s world ... it takes a lot more to sort of grab young people, get their attention and educate them while you’re doing it. 

TW: How did you get started?

Gros: I was sort of hardwired for this. I grew up in the Hudson Valley (in New York), and my backyard playground was a preserve of 3,600 acres. So I spent most of my childhood in nature, and then went to school to prepare for this in Northern California. This has always been my passion to be able to work with wildlife. But the opportunity arose for me to actually go work with wildlife, in the wild, (in) 1985 when I met Jim Fowler on the Johnny Carson show.

TW: What should we expect from the live presentation? What kind of animals are you bringing?

Gros: Well, we have ... footage we’ve filmed from around the world interspersed with hand-raised animals. It could be a kookaburra singing. It could be an owl that flies over people’s heads and lands on the stage. It could be a kangaroo (or) the world’s largest porcupine, called the crested African porcupine.

We have a good time with it. But the important thing is that it’s not a gloom and doom show about “the sky is falling.” … It’s based on our successes and all the good things that are happening (with conservation) that you just tend not to hear about. And then it gives me a platform to really connect young people with wildlife. I have lots of volunteers coming up on the stage to meet and help me with these hand-raised animals. 

TW: Are there specific Northwest successes you can point to?

Gros: Sure, our national bird, the bald eagle. It is off the endangered species list. You have the peregrine falcon up there, the fastest bird, clocked at over 200 miles per hour. Those, through captive breeding, have been reintroduced and doing very well. The whale populations in some cases are stabilizing. We have as many bears in some places as we had in the 1800s - black bears I’m talking about.  

TW: I’ve read there are bloopers involved in this show. What are some of the craziest things that happened on the show that didn’t make it onto the airwaves?

Gros: When you’re filming in the wild, you never quite know what’s gonna happen. ... We were rafting the Zambezi River (the fourth largest river in Africa) and we put in under Victoria Falls. It’s all class five-plus water, and the rapids are huge. They call it Valley of the Giants. And before we left they said, “Be sure and stay in the raft because, if you fall out, there are a lot of log snags underwater, and you’ll be pinned down and they’ll hold you down, so don’t get caught on those. But if you do fall out, get back to the boat as quickly as possible. Don’t swim to shore, because that’s where the crocodiles lay in wait and for the food to come by.” Of course, we did capsize several times going through this Valley of the Giants, and you’d be amazed at how quickly one can get back in a boat. 

TW: What’s maybe the most misunderstood animal?

Gros: Snakes, they have no human expressions. They’re cold-blooded. They have no legs nothing we can really relate to and they have had serious bad press since the beginning of history. And there have been movies made in Hollywood about giant snakes looking for people to eat.

But it’s actually quite easy to get people over their fear of snakes and reptiles just by working with them with small worms, and then a legless lizard, and then a small snake. And once they get over the idea of the tactile surprise that they’re not slimy, they’re not cold, they’re not yucky - then they can get over their fear. The important thing to focus on is their role in the animal world, eating all these rats and mice and animals that carry diseases that would make us very sick. 

TW: Is there an animal that fascinates you or that you've loved as a kid above all other animals?

Gros: (Chuckles) Well, I have many, actually. I had the opportunity to do a show with Christopher Cross, the songwriter, and he’s an avid diver. We were in the Bahamas. We swam with dolphins for two weeks and recorded dolphin sounds. Diving with dolphins that would ... bring their young over and play with us in the open ocean was the thrill of a lifetime.