When Stephen LeBlanc was 9 years old, he did something that set the course of his whole life: He went on a trip with his father to the St. Louis Zoo to see the famous lowland gorillas.
LeBlanc visited the gorilla house, but more importantly, he unexpectedly met Marlin Perkins, the zoo director and the affable host of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom television series.
"His office was near the gorilla cage and he just struck up a casual conversation with my dad and me," LeBlanc said. "He showed us his office and it looked just the way it did on the TV show, with the leopard skin in the background behind his desk and everything. Jim Fowler came by, too. Wow, it was great. I told my dad, 'Now I know what I want to be when I grow up.' "
As host of ESPN2's Browning Expeditions, LeBlanc is taking the next step in a life that was dedicated to the outdoor world long ago. And just as Perkins made a positive impact on his life and his ambition, LeBlanc hopes to inspire others through the new 30-minute program that airs Saturdays at 10 a.m and 1 p.m. ET.
Each segment features LeBlanc and an outfitter or a guest celebrity hunting in such exotic locales as Africa, New Zealand or Argentina, as well as going after game in the U.S.
"Browning Expeditions is about hunting, but I also hope to attract people who don't hunt and are curious about the natural world," LeBlanc said. "I think that on some level all of us — especially hunters — are drawn to nature and want to be a part of it. It's something in our blood. It's something that we need to understand and cherish."
Plugged in to the outdoors
LeBlanc is uniquely qualified to serve as guide to the natural world. Besides being an avid hunter, he has a degree in wildlife biology and is an acclaimed wildlife sculptor. He's also served as guest host of other TV series, including one about hunting dangerous game. His easy-going demeanor and can-do attitude put you in mind of a favorite hunting buddy or the teacher you wanted to be like when you grew up.
After his family moved from his birthplace near Kansas City, Kan., to Denver, LeBlanc spent his formative years hunting and fishing the plains and mountains of central and eastern Colorado. True to the vocation he avowed to his father after meeting Perkins, he focused on becoming a wildlife biologist in college and, along the way, started a taxidermy business with a partner.
Encouraged to enter the full-body mount of a pronghorn antelope in a national taxidermy contest, LeBlanc won first place in the Master Category and he suddenly found himself much in demand among wealthy hunters who wanted the best mounts that money could buy.
The next chapter in his career, which involved wildlife sculpture, developed out of LeBlanc's instinctive attention to detail.
"Taxidermy taught me to be very meticulous about recreating reality: the way living birds and animals hold themselves, their muscle tone, the silent subtleties of nature," he said. "A couple of wealthy clients who liked my taxidermy work wanted me to do some bronze sculptures for their ranches, so I figured, what the heck, I'll give it a try.
" Fortunately, there was a foundry down the road from our taxidermy shop so I could experiment and see if there was any future in it for me. Lo and behold, I found out I was pretty good at it."
LeBlanc first shapes a subject in clay and then transforms it into a sculpture through a molding process called the "lost wax method." He spends from three months to a year sculpting a model in clay, and another month to make the molds. After that, the castings take anywhere from three to five weeks to complete. About 85 percent of his sculptures are of animals, mostly African lions and bears, and he's paid between $250 and $150,000 per work, depending on its size and degree of difficulty.
Once ranked among the top five wildlife sculptors in the country by art critics, LeBlanc's work graces such public places as the two-dozen Sportsman's Warehouse stores across the country. Actors Dennis and Randy Quaid, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Emperor of Japan are among the owners of LeBlanc sculptures.
"There's a story behind everything I've ever sculpted," says the 54-year-old LeBlanc. "It's not just a depiction of an animal or bird, it's a recreation of a scene or memory. When I sell a sculpture, I pass along the story behind the inspiration.
"My sculptures demonstrate my love of the outdoors and hunting. It's a paradox to some people that you can love wildlife and also hunt and kill it, but not to me," he continues. "God made us the management officers of the world. Taking care of wildlife, a renewable resource, is a mission that He gave us. If it weren't for hunters we wouldn't have the rich diversity of wildlife that we have today. That, too, might seem like a paradox to some, but it's true."
The artist as a hunter
Like John James Audubon, an avid hunter who used the birds he and others killed as the models for his famous paintings, LeBlanc has blended sport with art in his life. As viewers of Browning Expeditions have discovered, he is an excellent hunter as well as a dedicated naturalist. He has a grand slam of North American sheep and has taken the African Big Five (lion, elephant, leopard, white rhinoceros and cape buffalo).
LeBlanc's most memorable hunt occurred in Africa when he shot a charging cape buffalo at 20 yards. It dropped about 12 yards away from him. Though he hopes to avoid any similar risks in the future, LeBlanc promises Browning Expeditions viewers an exiting and educational format.
"The show isn't just about killing animals or birds," LeBlanc said. "My goal is to entertain and inform hunters, but also to educate a group of people who might not know a lot about the outdoors or our responsibilities as wildlife managers. I want all viewers to have a good family experience in the outdoors when they watch Browning Expeditions."
Hunter, wildlife biologist, taxidermist, sculptor and now host of a popular new television series; Steve LeBlanc considers himself lucky that he's managed to combine careers with his passion for the outdoors. Along the way, he's fulfilled a dream that began with a causal meeting with boyhood hero Marlin Perkins many years ago.
"Life has a way of circling back again and again. We meet people who influence us one way or another and it changes things," LeBlanc said. "Now Browning, one of the oldest and most revered names in the outdoors, has put me in a position to make a positive statement about hunting, and about the outdoor world in general. It's my turn to pass it along, and I take that responsibility very seriously."