Terry Nutkins: Naturalist and broadcaster


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The Independent Online

A wondrous, unconventional childhood consumed by a love of animals took Terry Nutkins from the concrete jungle of central London to the Highlands of Scotland and the start of a journey that led him to become a television presenter who brought wildlife alive for millions of children.

In The Really Wild Show, which he devised himself, Nutkins – distinctive for his equally wild hair, long and unruly, with a bald patch on top – drew gasps of excitement from his young studio audience when he handled lion cubs, tarantulas and other animals.

This followed his introduction to television as co-presenter of Animal Magic, alongside Johnny Morris, who will forever be remembered for putting words into the mouths of creatures by mimicking what he envisaged they might be saying. Nutkins had originally been asked to appear on the programme to talk about dolphins, but his education in the animal kingdom had begun as a child with elephants.

He was born the son of a bricklayer in London; the family lived in a small terraced house near Marylebone railway station, At the age of eight, he skipped school one day, jumped over a fence into Regent's Park Zoo and found himself in the elephants' enclosure. As a result, he worked evenings and weekends alongside the keepers and became fascinated by the animals' behaviour and body language.

When the naturalist Gavin Maxwell was looking for young assistants to help him care for otters at his remote home in the Sandaig Islands, off Scotland's west coast, zoo staff suggested Nutkins. He was 11, but took the sleeper train to the Highlands – the first mountains he had ever seen – and began a new life surrounded by not only otters, but also dolphins, sharks, eagles and other wildlife.

The summer job became permanent and Maxwell, who was writing the best-selling book A Ring of Bright Water, about an otter he had brought back from a trip to Iraq, became his legal guardian. At the age of 14, Nutkins lost the tips of two fingers after an otter bit them and gangrene set in. After seven years with Maxwell he took a job at a zoo, then became a Trusthouse Forte general manager with responsibility for the cetacean operation at four safari and leisure parks (1970-83).

As an authority on marine mammals he began to appear on TV. A year after his first Animal Magic appearance, in 1978, Nutkins became Morris's co-presenter and will be remembered for hand-rearing a Californian sea lion cub called Gemini. He regarded Morris as his second mentor, after Maxwell, and was left most of the presenter's estate when he died in 1999.

However, in 1983, the BBC axed Animal Magic, considering it too unscientific, and Morris's patrician style out of date, and asked Nutkins to come up with a new animal programme for children. Loyally securing Morris's blessing, he created The Really Wild Show in 1986. It won three Baftas as Best Children's Programme before he was dropped seven years later; the programme continued until 2006.

Nutkins subsequently presented Growing Up Wild (1994-95), a Sunday-morning nature programme, Pets Win Prizes (1994-96), in which the public showed off their pets performing in simple contests, and the first three series of Brilliant Creatures (1998-2000). He also hosted the Radio 4 series Animal Corner (1987-90).

When TV work was running dry, he ran the Lovat Hotel, at Fort Augustus, Inverness-shire, but was swindled out of £6,500 by a fraudster. Then, in 2000, he bought the nearby Fort Augustus Abbey, a former Benedictine monastery, which he started restoring with the intention of turning it into a wildlife resort. However, two of Nutkins's backers pulled out and he sold the abbey after three years.

He returned to television briefly in My Life as an Animal (2009), guiding volunteers who spent several days living with different creatures, before revisiting the site of the cottage he had shared with Maxwell – which burned down in 1968 – for Countryfile (2010). Last February, shortly after being diagnosed with leukaemia, Nutkins spoke enthusiastically about otters in the BBC's Winterwatch programme.

Terence Paul Nutkins, broadcaster and conservationist: born London 12 August 1946; married 1979 Jackie Wyatt; eight children; died Glenelg, Inverness-shire 6 September 2012.