Charles Lee '09 is Semifinalists in Wild Kingdom Guide Contest

He’s studied the behavior of chimpanzees in Africa, tracked elk in Oregon and tagged blue iguanas on the Cayman Islands.

Now, he’d like to do it all on camera, as the host of Wild Kingdom.

Charles Lee ’09 is one of 12 semi-finalists from around the world in Mutual of Omaha’s Next Wild Guide video competition. The contest is currently in its “public voting” period — and fans can go online to vote for their favorite prospective guide. You can vote once a day through next Thursday, May 23.

Lee says he’s always had an affinity for animals, but he came to Pacific University from Hawai‘i to study film and video.

At first, he had his sights set on Hollywood, but he ultimately decided that was “too self-serving.”

“I wanted to give back to the world,” he said. “The spark occurred when I was watching TV and saw that Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, lost his life in a tragic accident.”

Though not a devoted fan of the show, Lee said he was inspired by Irwin’s dedication to working for wildlife education and awareness. He decided he, too, wanted to pursue wildlife education and make wildlife documentaries.

As a student at Pacific, Lee was able to travel to Africa with Mark Bodamer’s psychology course. He joined in a biology department project surveying local elk populations. And, he completed his senior project by making a documentary on shark fishing and sustainable alternatives, such as shark tourism — all while following his original goal of a film and video major.

Since graduating, he has made small wildlife documentaries and continued to pursue his career in wildlife education.

He volunteered at the Honolulu Zoo — one of his favorite childhood haunts, just a couple blocks from the home where he grew up — until he got a job serving ice cream and ultimately worked his way up to educator. Now, he takes zoo visitors on guided tours, sharing some of his own personal experiences with the animals, as well as a few “bio facts” to help people appreciate not only the zoo animals but their species’ importance to global ecosystems. He also works at the Hawai‘i Nature Center, where he takes visitors, mostly children, into nature for hiking, fishing, even bug catching.

In March, he took a hiatus from his work to spend a month volunteering in the Cayman Islands tagging the endangered blue iguanas. In the early 2000s, there were just a dozen adult blue iguanas left in the wild, but a breeding program has helped the large lizards rebound to about 750. Lee worked for a while in the breeding center, feeding baby and adult iguanas, then went into the field, where he would track down wild animals and install a tracking tag.

It was when he returned that a coworker, Stephanie Arne, told him about the Mutual of Omaha contest. He entered quickly, and both of them have found themselves in the semifinals.

It’s been fun, he said, to have a friend go through the experience with him, even if they are in competition.

“To share that experience with a friend like her, nothing can compare to it,” Lee said. “She’s the reason I’m in this contest.

“They say the good times are when you enjoy a friendship most, but I think when you’re going head to head is when your true bond really shines.”

Lee would love the votes of his Pacific University family in the Mutual of Omaha contest — but more, he said, he encourages people to take the time to watch each of the semifinalists’ two-minute videos and learn a little something about the importance of wildlife.

“It’s not just about getting the best job in the world,” he said. “It’s about getting the best person for the job, the best person not only to entertain and educate but to excite viewers around the world about wildlife and wildlife habitats.”

The top three finalists are supposed to be notified by the end of May, then they will go on to final auditions. The winner gets a cash prize and hosts an online web show, Lee said.

Whether he advances or not, Lee said he’ll continue pursuing his career in wildlife education — perhaps with an advanced degree. He’s already got ideas for a master’s and doctoral thesis regarding the endangered ‘Alal, or Hawaiian crow.

“I’m happy and ready to take on any animal adventure that’s willing to have me.”

Thursday, May 16, 2013