I have so much I should be doing right now — things to write, chores to do, errands to run. So, naturally, I’ve been spending a lot of time online looking at pictures of cute animals. There are a lot of posts about conservation in my Twitter feed and I remembered today that one of the pioneers of conservation was a fellow Missourian. So, while I’m procrastinating about other things, I thought I’d write a little in honor of Marlin Perkins.
If you were a child in America any time between 1963 and 1988, you almost have to remember Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. The half-hour nature program was syndicated during much of its run, but almost always aired on Sunday afternoon or evening. St. Louis Zoo director Marlin Perkins hosted with his assistant, Jim Fowler, who remarkably never got killed, even once! (“We’ll step back out of the way now while Jim separates the angry giant reptiles . . . “)*
Richard Marlin Perkins was born and raised in Carthage, Missouri and attended Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri. He began college at the University of Missouri, but dropped out to take a job as a grounds laborer with the St. Louis Zoo. After working his way up to the post of reptile curator by 1928, when he was just 23. He went on to become director of the Buffalo Zoological Park in Buffalo, New York, and then moved to Chicago, Illinois as director of the Lincoln Park Zoo. In 1962, however, he returned home to the St. Louis Zoo, this time as director. It was a post he would hold for the rest of his life, actively until 1970 and afterwards as Director Emeritus.
Perkins was also the biologist for Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1960 Everest expedition in search of the Abominable Snowman. He examined “Yeti” tracks and concluded that they were the footprints of smaller animals such as foxes that had melted together from the heat of the snow.
Through the medium of Wild Kingdom, Perkins and Fowler introduced America to the beauty, danger and fragility of the world’s wild animals. They were among the first advocates for conservation, the environment, and the welfare of endangered species. The program aired in forty countries around the world and on 200 stations in North America alone, garnering four Emmys and making an indelible impression on all of us little kids sitting in front of our televisions wishing we were the ones cuddling the baby tigers while Jim wrestled the water buffalo.**
Today, Perkins’ legacy continues in the form of the Wild Canid Center (aka the Tyson Wolf Sanctuary), which he and a group of fellow conservationists founded in 1971, and the Marlin Perkins Society at the St. Louis Zoo.
* I made up the stuff about the giant reptiles.
** Ditto the stuff about the water buffalo. But I swear, that sort of thing was always happening to Jim!