A Honolulu woman ended a call from Omaha with tears welling in her eyes as she buried her face in her hands.
“Are you OK, Stephanie?” a worried co-worker asked at the Honolulu Zoo Society.
“Uh, yes,” Stephanie Arne replied. “I just kind of stubbed my toe and my ankle.”
Her white lie concealed a big secret: In a national competition with about 200 others, she had just been named the next Wild Guide for “Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.”
The phone call came last month, days before the announcement, and Mutual officials told her she couldn't tell anyone.
Which was tough. That call, she said, “was the most magical moment of my life so far.”
Fifty years after “Wild Kingdom” debuted on national television, Mutual of Omaha is taking the franchise in a 21st-century direction. Stephanie, 30, will be the host for online episodes — webisodes — starting in November.
She already had an Omaha connection: After graduating from South Dakota State in 2005, she spent a summer as an unpaid intern at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
She performed so well there that she was hired in the zoo's education department. In 2006 she moved on to other adventures.
She has since traveled many miles and to multiple continents. But late last week she returned to Omaha as she prepared to shoot the first episode this week. She exchanged hugs with zoo staffers she said were her role models.
“Steph wanted to see the world and do a lot of things,” said Pat Purkhiser, lead teacher at the Zoo Academy, which partners with local school districts. “She had the guts to go out and do it. And she really took off like a rocket.”
Stephanie has stayed in touch with educators from her Omaha days, including the zoo education department's Julie Anderson — who told Stephanie earlier this year that Mutual of Omaha was seeking a new Wild Guide.
Applicants submitted two-minute videos. In late June, three finalists went through interviews and screen tests at the zoo.
Mutual of Omaha spokesman Jim Nolan said all three were excellent. The others were Regina Busse of Omaha and Thiago Silva of El Paso, Texas.
Stephanie Arne (pronounced AR-nee) says all her experiences the past several years as a wildlife educator prepared her for just about anything.
“I've had monkeys pull out my hair,” she said. “I've been kicked and scratched and squished. All of it has been a learning experience for me to constantly respect animals and their space and to understand their behavior.”
She has traveled to Africa, Japan, Australia, Malaysia and elsewhere. Her interest in animals dates back to childhood.
“My mom says that instead of playing with Barbies, I was always outside looking for frogs and toads and snakes.”
Her parents are horticulturists who have worked at greenhouses and garden centers. Lanette Arne lives in Des Moines and Randy Arne lives in Eagle Grove, Iowa, near Fort Dodge.
Stephanie was born in Clarion, Iowa, and graduated from high school in Pierre, S.D. She was a gymnast and a cheerleader, and she ran hurdles and competed in triple jump and long jump.
At South Dakota State she was dance team captain and class president. Her major was family science and human development.
But a research trip to West Africa showed her that “the world was smaller than I thought” and solidified her interest in wildlife — and in human-animal interaction.
Back home before her senior year, she was watching a program that mentioned a zoo's education department.
“Something just lit up, and I jumped off the bed,” she said. “Zoos have education departments? I can do that!”
She called the Omaha zoo and learned how to apply for an unpaid internship. Though her parents weren't thrilled about the “unpaid” part, she recalls thinking: “I have to do this or I'll regret it for the rest of my life.”
She worked in “the visitor experience,” giving tours, speaking in classrooms, even serving as a volunteer zookeeper for penguins and giraffes.
Thursday afternoon she returned to the zoo, where she held penguins, met zoo Director and CEO Dennis Pate and, by mere chance, ran into a high school gymnastics teammate, Therese Schutz. The two hadn't seen each other in years.
“Stephanie was one of the nicest girls in high school,” said Therese, a vascular ultrasound technician at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “Every time I see her on Facebook, I think, 'Wow, she is really doing what she loves.' ”
The first webisode will be shot this week at Custer State Park in South Dakota, focusing on bison and pronghorn sheep. Two other programs will be shot in Florida and one in California.
The shows will go online on Sundays in November, and then Mutual of Omaha will decide whether to continue in 2014. Overseas shoots are a possibility.
When Stephanie made an impromptu visit Thursday to the zoo's education department, Purkhiser invited her to say a few words to 50 high school students in a classroom at the Lied Jungle building.
She encouraged the students to work hard, follow their dreams and not let anyone discourage them.
“I started off here in an unpaid internship,” she said. “I had no idea where it would take me. No clue.”
She said that she has visited many zoos and that “this amazing zoo, in my opinion, is the best in the whole world.”
Stephanie also won a $10,000 prize in being picked as the Wild Guide — and got a compensated job, not an unpaid internship.
And her photo is now online next to those of “Wild Kingdom” TV hosts Marlin Perkins, Jim Fowler and Peter Gros.
“I never in a million years thought I would ever be standing next to those legends,” Stephanie said. “They started a huge movement, getting people excited about wildlife conservation. To have an opportunity to do that is mind-blowing.”