Penkava: The wild kingdom has come to town

Back in the 1960s, we kids loved the television program “Wild Kingdom.” The actual title was “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” but none of us knew what a “Mutual of Omaha” was. Our best guess was that it meant that the wild animals came from Nebraska.

The show was hosted by Marlin Perkins, a grandfatherly, soft-spoken zoologist who brought a wild kingdom of animals into our living room every Sunday evening. But to us, the real star of the show was Marlin’s fearless assistant, Jim. Always barefoot, he could be seen leaping from helicopters, forging flood-swelled rivers, or scaling towering baobab trees.

In every episode, Marlin would always be in a safe place, such as a Land Rover, while he sent Jim into harm’s way. I can still hear him describing the action …

“I’ll wait here while Jim carefully approaches the alligator. Look at all those long, sharp teeth! Watch out, Jim … that’s one feisty reptile!” Then Jim would wrestle the sunbathing alligator for a while as Marlin told us never to attempt to do that at home.

“Hey, Mom,” I would fearfully say. “We don’t have any alligators in our house, do we?”

“Not right now, Michael. But we can get more if you don’t behave,” she wisely replied.

Yep, we went through many an animal adventure with Marlin and Jim. With each show, my love for wildlife and nature grew. Plus, I stopped wearing shoes so I could be more like Jim as I explored my neighborhood in search of wild animals that escaped from Nebraska.

The “Wild Kingdom” of the olden days became the precursor to such networks as Animal Planet and The Discovery Channel, as new generations of children learned to enjoy and appreciate our animal friends. But in recent times, I have learned that you don’t have to vicariously enjoy nature by means of the television. You can experience it firsthand. That’s because, folks, the real Wild Kingdom has come to town!

You see, as much as animals love their wide-open spaces, they are running out of them and running into our narrow-closed spaces, such as our yards and streets and neighborhoods. Suddenly we are catching glimpses of scurrying feet in the daytime and red glowing eyes at night. Our new neighbors have moved in, and not even Marlin Perkins can stop them. Thus has begun the present interactions we experience with our furry fellow residents.

Now I’m not saying that all our dealings with the beastly populace are negative. Take, for example, what happened when we discovered a cute little screech owl sitting on the woodpile in the backyard. My plucky wife donned a leather glove and he hopped right onto her hand. I stood a safe distance away and did my best impression of Marlin as I described the drama to our children …

“We’ll wait here behind the tree while your mother approaches the owl with judicious caution. Those claws can cut through that glove like a spoon through strawberry Jell-O. And look at that sharp beak! Watch out, Honey … that’s one feisty fowl!”

I told her she did great, except she should have taken off her shoes.

Of course, we’ve had some not-so-entertaining episodes with our wildlife comrades. There was the skunk that sprayed our boxer in the face one morning. And the raccoon that destroyed all of the water lilies in our pond. And the chipmunks that took one bite out of every strawberry in the garden. Not to mention the seagull that wouldn’t let us into our car at McDonald’s unless we surrendered a french fry to it.

Yes, neighborly clashes will be inevitable as we intermingle our habitats. But things could always be worse. We could be living in Nebraska, where all the lions and tigers and bears are.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He called a friend from Nebraska and told him how much he loves their largest city. His friend said he felt the same. It appears that their feelings were mutual of Omaha. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.

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