Unreality Bites

Jim Fowler's new zoo will make Disney's Animal Kingdom look tame

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
"Your safari truck rounds a bend," says wildlife impresario Jim Fowler, "and suddenly a pack of wolves appears, and they start trailing your vehicle. Now that's suspense!" Well, yeah, but only if you don't know that the pack has been conditioned with "food rewards" to go through the same Pavlovian schtick several times a week. Fowler, who served for years as Marlin Perkins's laconic TV sidekick on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and who regularly flings cheetahs and chimps into Katie Couric's lap on the set of the Today Show, is talking about the plans for his $25 million, 2,000-acre interactive animal park in Glynn County, Georgia. Construction begins next month, and Fowler claims that when the gates open next spring, the park will "revolutionize the way people experience wildlife by combining education and adventure."

How so? The high concept hinges on the sort of ersatz drama that should be familiar to Wild Kingdom viewers. Take the doughnut-shaped mesh enclosures called "predator feeding tunnels." While visitors huddle inside, lions, tigers, and bears will scramble over the top and sides and begin inhaling chunks of raw meat tossed out by keepers. In the "adventure playground," kids will zip down water slides and climb on jungle gyms while otters and bear cubs mimic their behavior on similar equipment in neighboring enclosures. And at a rustic outdoor stage, experts will show off small creatures born inside the park. "The animals will represent themselves and their species," says Fowler. "They will be ambassadors for the natural world."

Despite the involuntary nature of the captives' diplomacy, animal rights activists are voicing cautious if ambivalent support. "It's certainly a step up from wrestling anacondas," says Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "How much of a step," she adds, "it's too early to tell."