Putting the Wild in Wildlife

There is, perhaps, only one way to adequately lay to rest a man known mostly for swimming with sharks and jumping from the tops of very high mountains.

And so, this Sunday, a team of high-flying paragliders will spread the ashes of adventurer and filmmaker Jimmy Hall — who once told CNN, "I'd rather blow up than rust" — over the blue waters of Hale'iwa, Hawaii.

Hall, 41, who had hosted some of Discovery Channel's Shark Week programs, died last week while BASE jumping — think skydiving without the plane — from a mountain on Baffin Island, a remote corner of the Canadian Arctic. He was filming a documentary there at the time.

"They all jumped at the same time and it's assumed that Jimmy got blown into the side of the mountain," a family spokesman told the media.

Viewers still enjoy the beauty and grandeur of Mother Nature. Some 5.1 million people tuned in to Discovery Channel's high-definition special, "Planet Earth," the highest ratings ever for a natural history program. But with the proliferation of cable channels, more and more stations feature personality-driven nature shows.

From Discovery and National Geographic to MTV, these shows feature the drama of men and women in the wild. Whether it is Discovery's reality show about climbers on Mt. Everest, "Everest: Beyond the Limit," or MTV's "Jackass" spin-off about wildlife, "WildBoyz," these programs play up the risk involved in making them.

So, just how did we get from the khaki-clad gentleman adventurers of "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" to MTV 2's WildBoyz, in which former "Jackass" cast member Steve-O pierced his cheek with a fish hook, loaded his underwear with chum and went swimming with sharks in the Gulf of Mexico?

For the MTV nature show, the "boyz," Steve-O (born Steven Glover) and Chris Pontius also dressed in banana suits in an effort to get chased by a group of endangered mountain gorillas, and, wearing nothing but thongs, covered themselves with poisonous lizards.

A Son of the Circus

In recent years, the person most associated with blending personal hijinks and the natural world was Steve Irwin, best known for his Discovery Channel series "The Crocodile Hunter."

Whatever line had traditionally been drawn between the wildlife television host and the wildlife itself, Irwin pushed.

And the line has been further pushed ever since.

Irwin grew up working at Australia Zoo where he handled some of that country's most dangerous wildlife. His high energy and willingness to manipulate deadly and often poisonous snakes and other reptiles, earned him an international reputation and worldwide following.

Despite his popularity, he was widely criticized for dangling his then one-month-old son near a 13-foot crocodile he was feeding at the zoo in 2004.

"He was a showman — you have to be a showman to be in this business," said Jeff Corwin, host of Animal Planet's "The Jeff Corwin Experience" and "Corwin's Quest."

"You have to be engaging, you have to be charismatic. Whether you liked [Irwin] or not, you have to admire his way of connecting with people. That was his big top."

While Irwin may have objected to his antics being compared to a circus, it was that tradition in which he was working, said Bob Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.

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