Ambassador of the Wild Kingdom
TV-host conservationist brings his passion, animals to Chico
From an early age, wildlife conservationist Peter Gros was hardwired to fall in love with the natural world.
Growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley, his backyard playground was 3,600 acres of a wooded preserve, maintained by his grandfather, a forester who immigrated from Germany in the 1940s and eventually managed the area. Exploring flora and fauna—particularly fauna—quickly became a lifelong passion for Gros; he’s led a life filled with inspiring experiences, from which he says it’s hard to pick a favorite moment.
“The massive herds of elephants I’ve seen in Africa … that’s an amazing sight. Swimming with dolphins, working with tigers. Those are a few of my favorite moments,” he told the CN&R by phone. “Nature in its wild state is just such a treat.”
While Gros has been enamored with nature since his youth, he didn’t immediately pursue it as a career option. He first experimented with art school, then did a tour of duty in Vietnam, where he built roads and hospitals with the U.S. Navy Seabees.
He eventually returned to his roots when he enrolled in animal husbandry training at Marine World/Africa USA, a former 200-acre theme park in Redwood City. There, Gros rediscovered his love of wildlife. After becoming the park’s director of land animals, he established breeding programs for endangered species and worked with the park’s lecture program, helping educate youth about wild animals.
One particular moment in the mid-1980s created a unique, life-altering opportunity.
Gros was tending to seven baby tiger cubs—the largest litter in captivity at the time, he explained—and “the mother had let me into the cage. Someone snapped a photo and that picture made the rounds, before ‘going viral’ was a thing.”
The photo caught the attention of Johnny Carson, who asked Gros to come on The Tonight Show. Happily accepting the offer, Gros brought the young cubs with him, using the opportunity to educate people about endangered species and other wildlife.
Carson’s other guest that night was Jim Fowler, then-host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, a documentary television series about nature and wildlife. Fowler invited Gros to be part of his team, and in 1985, Gros was initiated as co-host by filming a segment in which he dived alongside great white sharks.
While Gros continues to appear on TV—as co-host of Wild Kingdom’s second incarnation, which airs on Animal Planet, and a favorite guest on ABC’s Live with Kelly and Ryan—his focus has shifted to live lectures.
For the past 15 years, Gros has been giving presentations at universities, museums, science centers and other venues around the country, where he educates and encourages people to get involved with the natural world. Wednesday (March 6), his tour brings him to Chico; he’ll share his wildlife experiences at Laxson Auditorium.
“The greatest joy [with these presentations] has been creating a sense of hope and not presenting a doom-and-gloom story about the environment,” he said. “Sure, there are problems, but there are a lot of success stories, and I think those should be talked about at least as much as the other stories.
“We used to use DDT [an insecticide that proved widely toxic] … but we stopped using it, and look at the resurgence of birds! Lots of animals have come off the endangered species list: bald eagles, grizzly bears, the list goes on and on. If people can see the progress, they’re more likely to feel motivated to help, and maybe even get involved on a local level.”
So how can Chicoans get involved? Gros suggested community efforts: Pitch in during park clean-up days. Help at the Chico Creek Nature Center. Look for replanting programs in the area. Become a Park Watch volunteer.
“There are so many jobs and volunteer activities that can get you out in nature,” he said, noting that “Chico is a unique location, having both Bidwell Park and the Sacramento River right there. There are lots of birding opportunities; and, if you go farther north, you’ll find red-tailed hawks and vultures.”
Fitting with his optimistic outlook of nature’s future, Gros offers a sense of hope in the aftermath of the Camp Fire.
“I remember the Yellowstone fires of 1988,” he said. “It took about 10 years, but the ecosystem thrived again. It is absolutely devastating, but things will recover.”
Those interested in Gros’ Chico presentation can expect visits from animals representing all parts of the continent—lemurs, reptiles, honey bears—most of which have been rescued and cannot be released into the wild again. “Instead,” he noted, “they get to serve as wonderful ambassadors for their species!”
Steven Cummins, director of University Public Events, says attendees have a lot to look forward to.
“There’s that aha moment when kids and families get to see animals up close; it creates a wonderful energy and excitement,” Cummins said by phone. “And behind that, there’s an important message about conservation. We have to understand the species so we can help them.”
Gros wishes to create that human-animal connection during his Chico performance.
“My hope is that people will want to get more involved with the natural world,” he said. “In my opinion, there’s no better way to improve our lives than to get out into nature.”