It's a Zoo
Newcastle — A few days ago MPBN announced that Jim Fowler was in Portland to speak to the Biodiversity Research Institute. The name was familiar to me, but I couldn’t place him. Then the program “Wild Kingdom” was mentioned and the fog cleared. Like many others, I was a Sunday Evening devotee of the show which ran for twenty-seven years beginning in the early sixties. It is credited with “bringing wildlife into the living room,” and clearly primed our still-burgeoning interest in the environment. The program was hosted by the whiny-voiced Marlin Perkins whom I would put up there with mumbling Jacques Cousteau and Rachel Carlson as icons of the environmental movement.
Yet it was not Perkins, but the second in command, Jim Fowler who made things interesting, because Jim was fearless and eagerly took on tasks which no sane man would. Perkins ruthlessly exploited this feature, timidly offering: "I'll wait here...while Jim goes in for a closer look." Then Jim would jump into the cobra pit. Marlin was extremely good at building the suspense: "You have to keep an eye on the alligator's tail because with one fast slash of it he can sweep a man into his powerful jaws and needlesharp teeth." This wouldn’t stop Jim from roping the beast. It’s interesting to note that Cousteau also had his gophers for his underwater exploits; in his case it was his sons whom, like Abraham, he was apparently willing to sacrifice. This stuff was exciting, not at all like the banal, boring pabulum offered these days by the Discovery Channel.
Jim Fowler also appeared a number of times (forty in all) on the Johnny Carson show, bearing beasts, because the host was not loathe to clown with animals. There was one program where a coyote relieved himself on another guest’s shoe and one where a monkey beat Johnny over the head with a banana. What made these episodes so amusing was that Jim plays the perfect straight man. You can catch these (of course) on YouTube.
Jim Fowler is not the only man to earn my “Hero of the Environment” award. My father, a far more prudent and cautious man is also a recipient. He fostered and encouraged my long standing appreciation for animals (with the probable exception of that species which believes it has the power to reason). When I visit a city I almost always make it to the zoo, if there is one, most recently in Rome last Spring. I prefer the foreign to domestic zoos because of our somewhat overweening compulsion to present the animals in a setting emulating the wild. This means that the animals are frequently invisible, somewhat detracting from the zoo experience. OK PETA; so scold me. I digress.
In 1942, my father, completing his degree in Foreign Policy at Columbia University, submitted a thesis titled “International Protection of Wildlife.” This was a very early work in the field (Jim Fowler was only 10 years old!) I have read the book. It is excellent; the message is as relevant today as it was innovative then. Example: His was an early call for ships to cease the common practice of flushing their empty oil tanks and chambers at the end of each voyage. There was no immediate compliance, of course, but the message has eventually sunk in. His PhD thesis was republished a few years ago! How often does that happen? I am in awe and greatly appreciate that I can say this, for, as a son, I was certainly aware of what I felt were some shortcomings in the man. But that is only natural and part of the father-son relationship. Well done, Dad.