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Alumni

In Search of Wild Kingdom - Part 1 of 2

February 11, 2009

Moving around the kitchen to help his wife with lunch, 85-year-old Dr. Warren Garst (M.S. '63) doesn't exactly conjure up images of a globetrotting adventurer. Yet his work, filming wildlife for the long-running TV series Wild Kingdom, was anything but ordinary, whether it was working with 400-pound gorillas in the rugged mountains of Rwanda or documenting the capture of a Komodo dragon in Indonesia.

Dr. Warren GarstWild Kingdom

But Garst’s camera work did more than bring wildlife from the world’s most remote places into American living rooms starting in the early 1960s. Wild Kingdom, he says, helped change public attitudes toward animals and the environment.

“Before we came along, there was no such thing as a conservation movement,” he says. “There were a lot of little organizations, but they were preaching to the choir. These small groups were not making any impact. Wild Kingdom was appearing in 35 million homes on a weekly basis. That changed attitudes. After being on the air for six years, you saw the conservation movement begin to gain strength.”

Wyoming beginnings

Garst started filming wild animals in Jackson Hole, Wyo. while living out of an old coupe whose trunk doubled as a typewriter desk. Before long he traded in the coupe for a station wagon with a platform on the top from which he filmed wildlife.

“I was getting more experience than money in those days,” he says. “When I was filming a prairie dog picture I’d work as long as I had film, then I’d go do something else to earn money to buy more film.”

After occasionally filming wildlife for Walt Disney in the 1950s, Garst met Don Meier who produced an NBC wildlife program called Zoo Parade. Garst’s freelance footage of animals in the Jackson Hole area impressed Meier and host Marlin Perkins enough to give him a job on the show. While Garst was in the Amazon Rain Forest in Columbia, on his second assignment for Zoo Parade, the show lost its sponsorship and was canceled.

Alpaca

Six years later, Meier tried again with Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and Garst was hired to film assignments. When the show premiered in 1962, it was considered a risky venture being the only wildlife program on television. No one could envision at the time that the show would run continuously for the next quarter-century.

Danger, drudgery & delight

Garst’s film “crew” usually was made up solely of himself and his wife, Genny (who taught computer science at CSU), using their own equipment. Occasionally the company hired additional photographers for more involved assignments.

While his occupation wasn’t a constant adrenaline rush, Garst saw his share of hazards. Filming African rhinos from an off-road truck going 40 miles per hour or standing precariously near crocodiles for close-ups made obtaining on-the-job insurance somewhat tricky.

Lizard “While we were filming, Mutual of Omaha, the insurance company that sponsored the show, wouldn’t insure us,” Garst says. “The show had to go to Lloyd’s of London to get us insured. We had to call in right after we were finished shooting so they could cancel our policies, since Lloyd’s was so expensive.”

Among Garst’s scariest moments was filming the one-horned rhino in northern India. To help with his work, Garst rode on the back of an elephant. The beast was spooked by a small deer jumping from the towering grass and what followed was a runaway elephant, taking Garst and his cameras along for the ride. The driver, called a mahout, batted the animal with a club, but he couldn’t get her to stop. Garst, meanwhile, hung desperately onto his camera with one hand and onto the elephant’s reins with the other.

“The grass was so tall and it was so thick we couldn’t see anything ahead of us or on either side. My elephant wasn’t accustomed to this habitat. She kept running until she got out of the grass and could see all around her and that nothing was chasing her,” he remembers. When Garst was finally able to climb down off the elephant, he could hardly walk on his bowed legs and his hands were raw from rope burns.

This article was originally published in Around the Oval magazine. To subscribe to Around the Oval, become a member of the CSU Alumni Association.


Contact: Beth Etter
Phone: (970) 491-6533