Host and Conservationist Peter Gros Shares Preview into its Upcoming Series
How Wild Kingdom, a member of the AZA’s Commercial Member Engagement Council, is working with the AZA to revive the iconic animal conservation show―a new series all about highlighting hope.
Animal conservationist, iconic television host, and longtime member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as a professional fellow Peter Gros comes back into our homes and hearts in January 2023 with the new Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild. In this new chapter of Wild Kingdom, Gros and his crew travel across North America to capture the weird, wild, and wonderful animals that we love and highlights the positive animal conservation work done by conservation organizations, including the great work happening at AZA-accredited institutions. He also discusses how these conservation success stories can give us hope for the future.
How have AZA-accredited facilities played a key role in animal conservation efforts?
The efforts that zoos and aquariums make in animal conservation is a story that we are excited to share in the new series. The public doesn't realize that zoos and aquariums function not only as recreation but also as education and research centers. Most people are unaware of the depth of research conducted at their local AZA-accredited facilities. The conservation programs that these specialists design enrich the lives of animals in zoos and aquariums and help them rehabilitate back into their natural habitats. The AZA has given our Wild Kingdom crew wonderful suggestions of what conservation efforts we could highlight down the road.
What role did the AZA play in the filming of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild?
We are proud to collaborate with leading habitat and wildlife conservation organizations, such as the AZA, to bring greater awareness to specific animal and habitat-related issues.
The AZA gave our crew an insider's look into some cutting-edge research and rehabilitation programs that are going on today. An episode that I'm looking forward to is the reintroduction of sea otters into Monterey Bay. The sea otter surrogacy program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., which is an AZA-accredited facility, has reintroduced sea otters into their natural habitat, helping restore the sea kelp forest, and revitalize the complex ecosystem of the bay.
When did you first realize that animal conservation would be your lifelong career?
There wasn't one moment that stuck out. Rather, it was a collection of little moments that ignited my passion for animal conservation. Exploring the woods that my grandfather had forested on 3,200-acres in the beautiful Hudson valley taught me to love and respect nature. However, what solidified that love was tuning into the first chapter of Wild Kingdom with my family on Sunday nights. Seeing the plethora of species and their plights around the world confirmed my love of animals. Also, seeing iconic hosts Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler helped me realize I could have a career in animal conservation.
So, the first chapter of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom had inventive camera techniques like making reed huts to film the Western Grebe's walking on water mating ritual. How will that spirit of film innovation live on in this chapter of Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild?
In the first chapter of Wild Kingdom, they filmed with rather large cameras, so they had to get creative with capturing wild animals on footage. The camera people were doubling as production artists, making elaborate disguises so the wildlife wouldn't know they were being filmed. While cameras have improved considerably since the 60s and 70s, the spirit of innovation definitely lives on in this chapter of Wild Kingdom.
One of our episodes captures the return of beavers to the pacific northwest. Beavers create ponds that stop flooding, which incidentally aids the wild salmon in making their perilous journey to spawn. Capturing these wild salmon took a fair bit of ingenuity. I squeezed into a dry suit and jumped into the frigid snow runoff waters to film these salmon up close and personal using nothing but a Go Pro and a steady, quiet hand.
How has the introduction of drones and more powerful cameras affected studies done by animal conservationists and behavioralists?
Oftentimes when we were filming for the new show, the wildlife did not even know we were there. So, today’s technology has made it really easy for us to continue to educate people about the importance of conservation. Drones, long lens cameras, and motion sensors allow conservationists to film wildlife in a non-invasive way, capturing their authentic behaviors. In one episode, we employ drones to film the sharks in Monterey Bay, capturing their daily life.
I'm really looking forward to an episode where we filmed some bears by hiding tiny drone cameras in the ground with only the lens exposed. I can't tell you what happens but tune in for a happy ending with the newly released bears.
What is the most bizarre encounter that you've had with a wild animal?
In one of my first underwater episodes of filming Wild Kingdom, the researchers with us were testing to see if great white sharks could recognize bright colors, and by happenstance, I was wearing a bright yellow wetsuit. They lowered our protective cage so fast that the door floated open! Almost immediately after, a massive great white shark swam over our cage right next to the door. But then, he gently nudged the door with the end of his nose, closing the door. Then he just casually swam away. It was a pretty unusual start to hosting Wild Kingdom.
Relating to great white sharks, how do you pitch conservation efforts of 'scarier' animals such as the American crocodile or great white sharks to the public?
Many people have been raised to fear teeth and claws. Replacing fear with education is always a fair start. It's important to remind people that anytime you get remotely close to an American crocodile, they typically go in the opposite direction. What we aim to do with the new Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild is replacing fear with knowledge and understanding of wild animals.
And reflecting on your legacy, what conservation effort are you most proud of in your career so far?
I'm proud to positively affect young people's attitudes and revitalize their interest in animal conservation. It's easy to get despondent, but we have made tremendous strides in protecting our wildlife. I talk to younger generations about how pollution in the 50s and 60s was so harmful that rivers caught on fire and food chains were profoundly impacted by DDT pesticides.
We had serious problems, but, through positive conservation efforts, we continue to see wildlife success stories. It's important to remind everyone that we can improve the problems facing our ecosystems today. Seeing examples of positive conservation efforts creates hope and inspires young people, which is what I'm most grateful for.
Are there any biotechnologies or conservation efforts that give you hope for the future?
Something that I think is worth mentioning is the plasticity in the ocean, which covers 70% of our planet. There are millions of metric tons of plastic that end up in the ocean each year. Our Wild Kingdom crew got to film the work that the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, which also happens to be an AZA-accredited facility, is doing in Sarasota, Fla. They’re working with a number of other AZA members through the Florida Reef Tract Rescue Project regrowing coral to reintroduce to the Florida reef! Doing local river cleanups and replanting’s helps keep our rivers clean, keeping our oceans clean to help corals and other species thrive—it’s all connected. The conservation efforts made by younger generations and animal conservation researchers gives me hope.
What's a small thing anyone can do to ensure a healthy ecosystem for wild animals?
Thinking of your backyard as a habitat helps reframe what ‘nature’ is and connects you to your local habitat. If you're unsure where to start—connect with your local AZA-accredited conservation groups to learn what plants and trees to plant and what to avoid. Some other ways to ensure a healthy ecosystem for wildlife include:
- If you have a backyard or a community greenspace, consider that space an active habitat for wildlife.
- Plant milkweed and local plants that will attract butterflies.
- Have pollen sources for bees, our mighty pollinators.
- Setting up small rock structures for animals to find reprieve in a bad thunderstorm.
- Have a birdhouse, so birds and bats have a place to rest from eating the mosquitos and other pests in your backyard.
If there was only one message you want viewers to take away from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild, what would that be?
You can become involved and do your part to protect the wild kingdom. You can make a difference. Be frugal and be careful with your carbon footprint. Become engaged with your local AZA-accredited zoos and wildlife centers. Consider animal conservation as a career.
Where can our readers watch the new chapter of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom Protecting the Wild?
Debuting this month, readers can watch the new series on RFD-TV and on wildkingdom.com. The series includes 10 episodes about conservation fieldwork that is making a positive impact on the Wild Kingdom.
Photos Credit: © Mutual of Omaha
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