Peter Gros spent Sunday afternoons in New York’s Hudson Valley much the same way as other kids in the ‘60s: plopped in front of the TV, watching Marlin Perkins talk about wildlife. “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” was Gros’ introduction to habitats across the world. In adulthood, he has continued the fascination, only now he is learning about these vast kingdoms up close as host of “Wild Kingdom,” which will tour through ILM’s Wilson Center on April 28.
Gros always loved animals, even before he discovered the famed show. He spent time exploring a 3,600-acre preserve adjacent to his house, which his grandfather forested for years. Though he did not find tigers and kangaroos he would see Perkins talk about, he did come across native deer, grouse, pheasant, and turkey populations.
“The preserve was the playground of my childhood,” Gros remembers. “I would say I’m hardwired to be most comfortable in nature because of it.”
Gros attended the Silvermine College of Art in Connecticut to study commercial and wildlife art. Unfortunately, he did not find success in his art endeavors and began a tour in Vietnam instead. For 21 months he worked with the U.S. Navy Seabees, building roads and hospitals. Upon his return, he decided to rediscover his dream of working with animals.
Gros began studying animal husbandry at California’s former Marine World/Africa U.S.A., an animal-themed amusement park. There he learned how to bottle- and hand-raise young animals, as well as how to educate the public in animal conservation methods.
“That’s where I was able to get reconnected with my passion,” he describes fondly. “Working with endangered animals, doing school lecture programs … that’s when I really knew this is what I wanted to devote my life to.”
His first real break came when he began working at the park, which has since closed to become Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. While more of a thrill-ride-oriented experience, its legacy lives on in changes it brought to animal kingdom.
While working as director of the park, Gros helped create breeding programs for multiple wild species toeing the line of becoming endangered, such as tigers, leopards, giraffes, and zebras. He also assisted in the park’s school lecture program where students could learn about the animals the park sought to help. Another aspect Gros found rewarding was the animal-viewing experience the park provided, which for the time was unique.
“We caged people in 40-person Colorado River rafts and turned the animals all loose on islands,” Gros says. The animals got to see people going by in their cages and it was a nice, very free way to display animals. That was a very exciting time for me in life.”
Following his 22 years working at Marine World/Africa U.S.A., Gros got the opportunity of a lifetime. A photo of him bottle-feeding baby tigers caught the attention of Johnny Carson. Carson invited Gros to be on his show, wherein the other guest was Jim Fowler—successor to “Wild Kingdom” after Perkins fell ill in 1985. Afterward, Fowler asked Gros if he wanted to contribute to the show.
Gros’ first day on the job was not as typical as expected. When asked if he had any scuba-diving experience, Gros reassured the team he did, even though it was untrue. On the day of filming, Gros put on his tank’s regulator backward. The dive master cut him some slack, though, and together they dove into waters filled with great white sharks.
“They lowered us down in a cage so fast the top door floated open,” Gros recalls. “Part of the research we were doing was to see if white sharks were attracted to bright colors and, of course, my wetsuit was yellow so they could distinguish me from the other diver. We looked up just as the 12-and-a-half-foot great white came by, and he actually instead of coming into the cage, just bumped the door and closed it.”
Diving with sharks was not Gros’ only close encounter with wildlife he had seen on TV as a child. While at “Wild Kingdom,” he rafted down crocodile-infested rivers in Zambia and camped in Namibia’s Damaraland while 8,000-pound desert elephants somehow trekked quietly around them, leaving behind only their footprints.
What Gros has not stopped doing since his time studying animal husbandry, is educating the public in the world of animal conservation. He’s made several TV appearances on daytime and nighttime talk shows, to promote his message. He continues to frequent universities and science centers to spread awareness. “What I like to share are success stories about animals that have come off the endangered species list and create a little hope,” Gros mentions.
During shows, he allows audiences to see some of the animals visiting from rehab centers and local zoos. He also provides a live camera feed on stage of some of the animals. “You really get to see them up close and connect them with nature and the natural world, and it gives me an opportunity to eliminate fear,” he explains. “There’s a lot of old stories about the big, bad wolf and sharks out there, looking for people to eat, and I like to accurately explain what their role is in the natural world and create more understanding and appreciation for wildlife.”
Gros hopes to encourage others to go out and do what they can to help with conservation. By getting away from computers and cell phones and embracing nature, Gros believes we can begin to truly improve the world around us.
“Sure we still have problems,” Gros notes, “but think of all the problems we’ve already solved and the problems we’re going to solve in the future. If we all get involved locally doing what we can to help, I feel optimistic about the future of wild animals and wild places.”