'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom' crew shoots in Naples for 2023 revamp of classic nature show
A gust of wind burst across the Nancy Payton Preserve in the Golden Gate area as Peter Gros stood in the shade, waiting for his chance to bring back one of culture's most iconic animal shows.
Looking like a slender version of Tom Selleck fresh off safari, Gros breathed in the afternoon air Saturday afternoon, the first day of shooting for the return of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."
"It's a wonderful feeling to be here and the Florida panther is doing a little better, so it's nice to be launching the new series," Gros said just before going on the makeshift set. He's wearing a pair of dark sunglasses and sporting a thick salt-and-pepper mustache. "It's nice to have this platform to share this information. Panthers are coming back, and they're not this big scary cat looking for people to eat. They're elusive, and they're keeping other populations in check and playing their roll in wildlife."
The Nancy Payton Preserve is a 71-acre slice of uplands in the Golden Gate area that's near some of the most densely populated lands in the state. Densely populated with panthers, that is.
On this day it was the site of a film production scene that's bringing back one of the nation's original animal shows.
"Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" was broadcast decades before Discovery Channel, Animal Planet or Nat Geo TV. The show debuted on NBC in 1963 and ran through 1988.
Gros joined the set in 1985 and hosted "Mutual of Omaha's Spirit of Adventure Series," amo.
"I think in the mid-80s there were three television networks to see wildlife on and now there's so many people out there sharing information on television and the internet and it seems this generation wants to participate and become involved," Gros said. "I think they're more involved than people were 40 years ago."
There have been various iterations of Mutual of Omaha over the decades featured on different TV and online channels.
This, a revamp of the classic, will be a 10-episode season focused on wildlife success stories.
Producers aren't sure when the Naples episode will air, but the series run starts in January 2023.
"This episode is about big cats, so we're filming Florida panthers here and we'll also film cougars in (Los Angeles)," said Emily Poeschl, a marketing strategist for the show. "We'll be here for three days of shooting and the camera guys will stay another day."
The crew didn't actually find panthers while shooting as the cats are elusive. Most encounters with humans are purely coincidental, scientists say.
Their story will be based on the history of the panther over the past 30 years or so, from an era when a few dozen existed in the far reaches of the Everglades and the Big Cypress National Preserve to today's population (upwards of 230 cats).
The 30-minute episodes will air on RFDTV, a cable network and streaming service that centers on farming, rural life and culture, equine science and environmental issues.
"Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" is still based in Omaha, Nebraska, but the film crew will be working across the United States for this series.
The National Wildlife Federation is partnering with "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" to produce the show.
"We have an incredible natural heritage in America and it's something we can all see and experience if just get outside," said David Mizejewski, with the National Wildlife Federation. "That's kind of the theme of it all, getting out in America's big backyards together and coming together to make sure that we have a future where we have some of these incredible species."
Mizejeweski said working with Gros and his crew was like living out a dream.
"I grew up watching wildlife and nature programs and watched 'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom,' and being able to hook up with Peter is like a childhood dream," Mizejewski said. "This transcends politics and regions. And not everyone is going to get a chance to see a panther, but by doing these videos we're able to share the experts locally and send that out to the whole country."
Mizejewski reached out to Meredith Budd of the Florida Wildlife Federation, who in turn organized the filming locations and camera shoots.
"That show, for a lot of people, helped spark people to have a passion for protecting wildlife and habitat and hopefully it will have a similar impact on future viewers, Budd said.
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David Genson, with Barron Collier Companies, was a featured speaker on the set.
He talked about how private land owners can work with state and federal agencies to preserve panther habitat.
"As a young kid growing up watching this, it was one of my favorite shows," Genson said after being interviewed on the set. "When Meredith invited me, I jumped at the chance to be a part of history. I'm really looking forward to it because it was such a big part of my life growing up,"
Gros said the production crew still hasn't decided on all subjects and filming locations for the 10 episodes.
"We're considering the stories of the California coastal otters and how they're doing and black bear stories, and the migrating monarch butterfly and the bald eagle, our national bird that came off the Endangered Species list," Gros said. "We're focusing on success stories rather than so much of the gloom-and-doom this generation has to hear."
He said the target audience is the people who don't get a chance to go hiking or riding a swamp buggy in rural Collier County, the heart of the breeding panther population.
"We do this for the people who can't get out here, and I'm just proud to be a part of all of this," Gros said.
Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.