The 6-foot blood python lunged at Kelly Diedring’s legs, attempting to strike the animal care specialist. Diedring hopped back while still grasping the aggressive snake and successfully avoided the jaws of the python — all the while explaining its features and behaviors on camera.
This scene from the Dec. 1 episode of Animal Planet’s first reality show, “King of the Jungle,” was one of many that impressed the judges so much that “Queen of the Jungle” might have been a more fitting title for the show.
“Kelly’s personality shined over everybody’s,” said Ginger Sheehy, associate producer for Animal Planet. “She was very bubbly and had great confidence in her own abilities.”
A former cheerleader for MU, Diedring had many opportunities to develop her effervescent attitude in front of a crowd.
“Cheerleading prepared me for being in front of an audience,” Diedring said. “I was nervous at first, but it helped me learn to just be myself.”
She combined her zingy personality and physical prowess with her command of animal knowledge, which she’s been acquiring since her days at MU’s School of Fisheries and Wildlife and through internships at the St. Louis Zoo and the Australia Zoo. Her current job at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla., as an animal care specialist for birds and reptiles also helped Diedring distinguish herself from a field of 12 animal experts.
Judges crowned the 2001 MU graduate the winner of the show, which lies somewhere between “Survivor” and “Crocodile Hunter” on the reality show spectrum. Her victory was announced Monday night during the last of the show’s 10 episodes shot during a 12-day period in July and August at an undisclosed animal sanctuary in North America.
Diedring’s reward mirrors the goal she wrote on her MU application when she was 17: to host her own show on Animal Planet. Diedring’s program, a one-hour special, will air at 7 p.m. Dec. 22 on Animal Planet.
“It’s a combination special on crocodilians and a behind-the-scenes look at a first-time host’s experience,” Diedring said.
On the final episode of “King of the Jungle,” Diedring swung through the trees and down a zip line to rescue an alligator in a simulation designed by the show. She was the only competitor out of the final three that was able to lift the gator out of the water. In another close encounter, she was playfully attacked by a tiger and forced to seek refuge in a nearby tree.
Diedring said the most difficult part of the experience was not being able to talk to her mom for about three weeks. “When I got back, we had a lot of catching up to do,” she said.
Diedring was comforted by daily frolicking with exotic animals, the friendships she built with the other contestants and the chance to share her message about animals in an entertaining way.
“I love ‘Survivor,’ but this is a classier reality show because we are truly there to further our careers and because we love animals and education,” Diedring said. “To get people concerned about conservation, you have to get them emotionally connected.”
Unlike “Survivor,” the 12 original contestants had no direct impact on each other’s fate.
A rotating panel of judges with expert animal experience decided who would be eliminated each episode. The panel included Nigel Marven, who hosts “Shark Week” and other wildlife shows, and Jim Boller, one of the head animal-cruelty investigators featured on “Animal Cops: Houston” and part of MU’s extended faculty. Boller brings his exotic animal expertise to Columbia to teach Level 3 classes in the National Cruelty Investigations School, an extension of the MU law school.
Diedring said she knew by age 3 that she wanted to work in a zoo. “I’ve always had this crazy connection with animals — an obsession — I can’t think creatively or cook, but I love science,” Diedring said.
She first got involved in conservation by organizing events and educational programs for kids in St. Louis as part of Mizzou Tigers for Tigers, an effort aimed at raising public awareness about wild tigers and establishing research partnerships.
“MU was the first school to use its mascot for real conservation efforts,” Diedring said.
Bill Kurtz, director of undergraduate studies in the School of Natural Resources, and a fan of “King of the Jungle,” said Diedring’s knowledge of animals as well as their ecosystems lets her operate with confidence.
“You have to make your breaks in your career and Kelly has done that — she really seized the opportunity,” Kurtz said. “She deserves to be where she is.”
Kurtz said that Diedring had to complete tasks on the show that he would not attempt. “I probably would not get in the water with a bunch of juvenile alligators,” he said.
Stacy Spurlock, a 13-year animal care specialist at Busch Gardens, said Diedring “is always the first to jump in and get dirty. Her passion for animals brought tears to my eyes shortly after I met her,” Spurlock said. “You don’t see people that dedicated every day.”