But don't stress too much. I am constantly astonished at how camera-phobic the average American is, but I'm sure you can get a grip on what's required to get those big-money shots. Besides, today's cameras do so much of the work for you it's almost laughable.
For the camera body, I'd go with one of several models. Ideally, you could swing for a semi-pro camera such as Canon's estimable Elan 7E (street price around $420; www.canoneos.com). An excellent camera: well-balanced, full-featured, with a superb auto-exposure system AND Canon's other-worldly eye-control focus (where you look, it focuses). Nikon's N75 ($200; www.nikonusa.com) is a more affordable but still very capable camera. Auto-exposure and autofocus, of course, and like the Canon, it also has automatic film advance.
For your basic lens, you could go with one of the mediocre 35-100mm lenses offered in "kits" with both the Elan and the N75. It's a cheap and sort of serviceable alternative. Better, though, to go with a higher-quality zoom such as the Sigma 24-135mm f/2.8-4.5 zoom lens. Much faster (better in low light) and better glass than the inexpensive kit lenses.
Then, for your real wildlife photography, get a 400mm lens. At the very least. Sigma makes a decent zooma 135-400mm f/4.5-5.6that sells for $500 or so. Or, go for the really heavy artillery and get a Canon 500mm f/4.0 with image-stabilizing technology. Of coursewait for itthat costs $5,000.
So, short of encouraging you to rob a bank, get yourself the Sigma zoom, either the Canon or the Nikon, and a decent tripodthe Bogen 3001BN ($110; www.bogenphoto.com) is nifty.