A Girl of the Wild: SDSU Grad to Be New Wild Kingdom ‘Wild Guide’
Source Newsroom: South Dakota State University
Newswise — Off the western coast of Australia along the Great Barrier Reef, Stephanie Arne signed a contract stating that her next move could mean death. Then she jumped.
The salty seawater surrounded her as she swam. She was looking for a whale shark to teach a group of tourists. No matter that she had never seen one before.
Arne saw movement ahead. Was it a whale shark? Or a manta ray, one of the largest ocean creatures? Or a tiger shark, one of the most dangerous to humans?
“I remember just sitting in the water motionless as this huge, 9 meter whale shark swam by,” Arne, a 2005 graduate of South Dakota State University, says. “He was so peaceful and magical.”
Growing up in Iowa and South Dakota meant fewer predators. Just ones that wrestled, swam, hunted and pranced around Arne’s living room— on TV.
Arne and her family frequently tuned in to Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and, later, Mutual of Omaha documentaries on Animal Planet. That was where she first fell in love with wildlife and Africa.
“I saw Africa and I remember looking at my dad and saying, ‘I want to go there someday,’” Arne says. “My dad was like, ‘You’re not going to wrestle crocodiles in Africa.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I am!’ I think I was five.”
Begin the search
In March, Mutual of Omaha launched a nationwide search for a new host to join the legendary ranks of Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler. Job description: Must be energetic, adventurous and excited to teach viewers about wildlife. Arne decided to give it a shot.
It started with 200 entries. Then it was cut to 12 semifinalists. Following an online vote, Wild Kingdom narrowed the field to three finalists: Thiago Silva, of El Paso, Texas, an amateur outdoor filmmaker; Regina Busse, of Omaha, Neb., a backpacking adventure tour leader; and Arne.
On July 15, Arne sat in front of a computer with her hands on her head. She was trying to keep it from exploding.
Months of competing. Weeks of waiting. Photo shoots, television and radio interviews, and traveling from town-to-town. It had all been hinged on this moment. Mutual of Omaha had just announced the next Wild Guide to host Wild Kingdom.
It was Stephanie Arne.
“Stephanie is exactly what we were looking for to host the new series,” says John Hildenbiddle, senior vice president of brand management for Mutual of Omaha. “Her energy, passion and excitement about wildlife and nature is contagious.”
Between a mixture of laughter and squealing, Arne shared in the excitement.
“I grew up watching that show! I grew up dreaming of the possibility of doing that one day. And now I am!” Arne says. “With everything I’ve learned, I want to show the entire world my experiences and share my knowledge. Hopefully they can see my passion for wildlife and education.”
Longtime friend and former SDSU professor, Sally Gilman, wasn’t surprised. “She doesn’t have this boundary of fear,” Gillman says. “If she can see it, she can make it happen. I witnessed that in Africa.”
Rewind to 2005. Arne’s educational path at SDSU had taken a couple turns. She changed her focus from marine biology, turning instead to a degree in human development. But her interest in wildlife never faded.
Arne was slated for May graduation, making career plans to get a master’s degree and become a counselor. One flyer changed it all; posted outside Gillman’s office, then assistant professor in human development, in big bold letters: “Come to Africa!”
“My heart stopped,” Arne says. “I just knew right then that I was meant to go.”
Landing in West Africa in 2005 was the first time Arne left American soil. The three-week study abroad program was led by Zeno Wicks, a now retired professor of plant science, and included Gillman, other faculty and about 15 fellow SDSU students. The group traveled from cities to villages to rainforest to savannah, experiencing different cultures, new environments and lots of exotic wildlife.
“We were all wearing dirty clothes and sweating. But that was OK,” Gillman says. “I think that has opened the world for Stephanie. She’s not afraid to get dirty.”
Arne came back with a bag of dirty clothes, a few souvenirs and even more determination.
“From that point on, I realized I could actually work with animals and teach,” Arne says. “And I was able to use my degree. I think that’s what really surprises a lot of people.”
Since the trip to Africa, Arne has traveled to Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. She has spent time directing youth camps, conducting VIP tours, leading dives, working with orangutans, snorkeling with sea turtles and of course swimming with sharks. She has worked for Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, Sea World and the Honolulu Zoological Society.
And now, Wild Kingdom.
From seeing Wild Kingdom adventures to becoming the next Wild Guide, Arne is making her dream happen. The spark that set her world on fire can be traced directly to Africa.
Study abroad programs like the one Arne joined are not just sightseeing trips to exotic destinations. These opportunities focus on experiencing the cultures, living in the moment in a whole new place and fostering connections.
“We set students up to be challenged. To get them to recognize human interactions and conversations, and the beauty and simplicity,” Gillman says. “Thinking changes from what they think they know to what they actually experience.”
With an educational background in human development and a personal passion for wildlife, Arne pieced it together. Her travel experiences taught her not only fascinating differences between places, but also how people interact with the nature and wildlife around them.
“The most important thing about studying abroad is realizing that you are one of 7 billion people on this planet,” Arne says. “It helps you realize that this isn’t just your world.”
Arne has gone wild and is ready to take you along for the ride.
Premiering this October, Arne will take viewers on adventures, finding and learning about animals ranging from the minuscule to the top of the food chain. Like sharks.
“It just really hits you,” Arne says. “That this whole world is just happening around you. Every single animal is so special and just doing their thing. It blows my mind. I just love it.”
About Wild Kingdom
Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom premiered on Jan. 6, 1963, taking viewers to the far corners of the world to learn about wildlife with hosts Marlin Perkins, Jim Fowler and Peter Gros. Wild Kingdom received 41 major awards including four Emmys and an endorsement by the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) for television recommended for family viewing.
The all-new webisodes, featuring Arne as Wild Guide, will be a high impact, mini-episode version of the classic Wild Kingdom program, redefined for today's generation of viewers and broadcast online. The series is slated to premiere this October on the Wild Kingdom TV YouTube channel.
To learn more about Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, visit www.wildkingdom.com or the Facebook page www.facebook.com/wildkingdomtv. To learn more about Stephanie Arne, visit her website www.stephaniearne.com and become a fan on her Facebook page www.facebook.com/TheWildLifeInvestigator.
About South Dakota State University
Founded in 1881, South Dakota State University is the state’s Morrill Act land-grant institution as well as its largest, most comprehensive school of higher education. SDSU confers degrees from six different colleges representing more than 175 majors, minors and specializations. The institution also offers 29 master’s degree programs, 12 Ph.D. and two professional programs.
The work of the university is carried out on a residential campus in Brookings, at sites in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City, and through Extension offices and Agricultural Experiment Station research sites across the state.
For more information, visit www.sdstate.edu.