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Biting the Hand That Feeds Them : Fowler Likes to Run With a Wild Bunch

November 22, 1987|KAY BARTLETT | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Big Jim Fowler, naturalist, adventurer and talk show regular, once had to break up a fight between two grizzly cubs who were wrecking the kitchen of his Manhattan apartment.

How do you do that?

"Throw them some meat," answers the host of "Wild Kingdom," television's longest-running syndicated half-hour show.

But problems are not always so easily solved for a man in Fowler's line of work. For 25 years he has been showing animals for education, charity and profit--he is a frequent guest on the "Tonight" show--and he and his traveling companions have caused a few flaps.

It was Fowler who produced a 12-foot Burmese python at a Sept. 19 charity fund-raiser in Greenwich, Conn., that frightened the Duchess of York, better known to Americans as Fergie, wife of Britain's Prince Andrew. Her hysterical tears prompted speculation among "royal watchers" that such behavior might indicate that she was pregnant.

There was the time he had to wrestle down a cheetah about to make a meal of Zsa Zsa Gabor's "dahlinks," three little poodles.

When Johnny Carson once started making faces at an irate ape with two-inch incisors, Fowler quickly stepped in to head off an attack.

And there was the time he had to order fresh sirloin to lure an eagle that had flown to the chandelier of a ballroom in New York's Plaza Hotel.

Fowler's friends have also trashed a few hotel rooms in their day; some have gotten loose in airplane baggage compartments, sending security men diving for cover, and he has been known to sneak unusual guests past the doormen at his apartment building.

Fowler, who has befriended birds and animals since his boyhood on a Georgia farm, has had many close calls.

There was the time an anaconda "swallowed" most of his arm--up to the shoulder--before he got free, the time a helicopter swooped him out of the path of a charging moose protecting her calf, and the time a wolf attacked somebody's lunch bag just as Art Linkletter was suggesting that "Julie" seemed to be a German shepherd.

The late Marlin Perkins originated the "Wild Kingdom" show, which now runs on 200 stations, with Fowler as his sidekick. Twelve new episodes were filmed last year, 16 the year before and the rest are reruns of the classic winner of more than 60 awards, including four Emmys.

Last year Fowler filmed six "Spirit of Adventure" specials for ABC and will do that again this year. He also syndicates a daily 90-minute radio spot called Nature Newsbreak.

Fowler bumped into the Gabor poodles while running a cheetah to a lure on a polo field for a World Wildlife Fund benefit.

"The cheetah had already noticed the polo ponies on the other side of the field. That's on the food list," Fowler says. "I had some food rewards but I knew I would have to grab her as soon as she finished because of the ponies."

"It was a great show. She got up to 50 m.p.h. I mean, where else would people get to see that if we didn't do things like this?" asks Fowler, at 55 still excited at watching animals do what comes naturally--such as, in the cheetah's case, run.

"Just then another car pulls up and Zsa Zsa gets out with three little fluffs of poodle. I dove on the cheetah," Fowler says in a this-is-what-daddy-did-at-work-today voice.

He was not hurt. But he will show you tracks on his right arm from a not-so-successful encounter with a cheetah. He has been nipped, bitten and clawed, but was most seriously injured when he was gored by a white-tailed deer.

A deer?

"More zookeepers are killed by members of the deer family than anything else," he says. "We think of those antlers as hatracks, but they are very lethal weapons."

Born near Albany, Ga., Fowler trained birds of prey as a boy, walking through the fields of Mud Creek Plantation, the family farm. He graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., with degrees in geology and zoology, unsure of his career. He turned down a "bonus baby" offer from the Philadelphia Phillies, raised cattle for a while and continued working with raptors as a hobby.

He has traveled the world, diving for great white sharks off Australia, walking unarmed in tiger preserves in India and becoming the first man to trap a harpy eagle in Brazil and bring it back to the United States alive.

He has lived with the Kalahari bushmen in Africa, led expeditions to Peru to study the Andean condor and walked, unarmed, footsteps away from a polar bear that had just killed another polar bear, a feat he would not repeat unarmed.

Besides his Manhattan apartment, Fowler has a home in New Canaan, Conn., and keeps the 1,000-acre family farm, where he raises elands, ostriches and zebras.

Married and the father of two teen-age children, one of whom is missing his pet boa constrictor, Fowler has become a spokesman for endangered animals. He also consults in designing zoos and parks. He wishes that more zoo directors would do what he does.

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