Written by Kristina Lankow
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, nine meter whale shark swam by,” Arne, South Dakota State University alumni, said. “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.
It was a weekly tradition to watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. That was where Arne 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 said. “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,” said 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 said. “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 said. “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 her focus 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 said. “I just knew right then that I was meant to go.”
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.
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.
With an educational background in human development background 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 seven billion people on this planet,” Arne said. “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 fall, Arne has started taking viewers on adventures, finding and learning about animals ranging from the minuscule to the top of the food chain. Like whale sharks.
“It just really hits you,” Arne said. “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.”
For more info, visit www.wildkingdom.com.
See her audition tape here: