American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


The Wild Things

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Popular Culture

First Advisor

Montana Miller (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Donald McQuarie (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

David Nemeth (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Edgar Landgraf (Committee Member)


This dissertation examines the creation of several iconic personalities, who because of their presumed abilities to freely and successfully cross back and forth between the dichotomous worlds of wilderness and civilization, were able to demonstrate their heroics to the public largely through surrogates of the wilderness; captive wild animals, especially those deemed most dangerous. Using various media and venues these people were able to become popular personalities for an increasingly urban population with little or no direct contact with what was deemed "wilderness." Each of the iconic personalities was very much in tune with the prevailing public perceptions surrounding wilderness and wild animals. Along with their publicists and collaborators they created and often internalized images that reflected the values, unique talents, and backgrounds of contemporary popular heroes, both real and fictional. This coincides with William Cronin's theory that wilderness "is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in history." By examining in depth the creation, careers, and legacies of three of these iconic heroes; Isaac Van Amburgh, Frank Buck and Clyde Beatty, it becomes evident how they paved the way for their many successors, most notably Marlin Perkins, Gunther-Gebel Williams, Jack Hanna and Steve Irwin. Shifts in public perception of the increasingly threatened wild and the growing controversy over the practice of keeping wild animals in captivity have recast many of these former heroes into villains. Yet for much of the public the allure of individuals able to defy the real or imagined dangers of the wild remains fascinating. Today, in a culture fixated with celebrities and stars, perhaps this willingness to create an image, becoming the hero of children and the envy of adults, is the only way to successfully purvey a message of habitat preservation, respect for the environment, and the importance of "green" practices.