Born in Missouri in 1905, Marlin Perkins developed an early interest in animals. After briefly studying zoology in college, in 1926 he was hired as a maintenance worker at the St. Louis Zoo. However, Perkins’s expertise soon led to his promotion to curator of the zoo’s reptile exhibit, which he made both sizable and popular over the following decade. His work would lead to his hiring as director of the New York Zoo in Buffalo in 1938 and director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago in 1945. His efforts to promote the latter would lead to the creation of television show Zoo Parade, which featured Perkins as narrator. After returning to the St. Louis Zoo as its director in 1962, Perkins then developed the television program for which he is best known, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, which ran for decades. Wild Kingdom would earn several Emmys and make Perkins a national celebrity as well as a pioneer of the nature documentary genre and environmental movement. Perkins died in Missouri in 1986.
Richard Marlin Perkins was born on March 28, 1905, in Carthage, Missouri. The youngest son of Judge Joseph Dudley and Mynta Mae Perkins, he became fascinated with reptiles as a toddler, much to his mother’s chagrin. However, when Perkins was just seven years old, his mother died of pneumonia and he was sent to Pittsburg, Kansas, to live on his aunt’s farm, where his interest in animals expanded. Soon he had quietly assembled a small zoo containing everything from snakes and frogs to baby coyotes and raccoons, all of which he kept stashed beneath his aunt’s house and in a neighbor’s hayloft.
In his teens, Perkins attended the Wentworth Military Academy and later Carthage High School when he returned home to live with his father. After taking time off following graduation, in 1924 Perkins enrolled at the University of Missouri–Columbia, where he first studied agriculture before changing his major to zoology. However, two years later, his fascination with wildlife unabated, he dropped out in search of a more direct means of indulging his passion.
In 1926, Perkins moved to St. Louis and was hired for a maintenance job at the zoo. Touting his experience with reptiles to the zoo’s director, he was placed in charge of its small collection just two weeks later. Within a short time, he had increased not only the exhibit's size but also its popularity with visitors, and in 1928 he was rewarded with an appointment as curator of reptiles. Over the next decade, he would grow the zoo’s reptile exhibit to more than 500 animals. During this time Perkins also married Elise More, with whom he would have one daughter before their divorce in 1953.
In 1938, Perkins’s accomplishments in St. Louis led to his hiring as director of the New York Zoo in Buffalo. During his tenure, that zoo’s collection was developed—with special attention paid to its reptiles—into what was considered to be one of the finest in the country. His reputation now firmly established, in 1944 Perkins moved on to his next post, as head of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, where his enthusiasm for animals would launch a new and exciting phase in his career.
Starts 'Zoo Parade'
Shortly after his appointment as its director, Perkins began appearing in spots on a local television station to promote the Lincoln Park Zoo, describing in great detail the behaviors of the animals he would bring to each one. The segments grew in popularity over the years and by 1950 had been developed into the program Zoo Parade, which aired nationally on NBC. (Some sources cite the series as beginning in 1949.) Filmed initially at the Lincoln Park Zoo and later at zoos around the country, the entertaining and educational Zoo Parade made a celebrity of Perkins, who narrated the show in his distinctive, charismatic Midwestern voice.
Though Zoo Parade’s run came to an end in 1957, Perkins’s career still had yet to reach its apex. While continuing in his duties as director of the Lincoln Park Zoo, he embarked on other adventures as well, joining Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1960 Everest expedition as its zoologist, charged with investigating the existence of Yeti. In more domestic developments, Perkins wed Carol Cotsworth, and in 1962 they moved back to St. Louis, where Perkins was appointed director of the zoo where he had begun his career.
Sharing a 'Wild Kingdom'
While setting out to make the St. Louis Zoo one of the finest in the country, shortly after his arrival Perkins began work on a new television program as well, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Premiering in January 1963, Wild Kingdom took viewers out of the zoo and into the jungles and deserts to observe the animals of the world in their natural environments. Hosted by Perkins and fellow zoologist Jim Fowler, Wild Kingdom helped establish the wildlife documentary genre, and its focus on endangered species and conservationism made it an early pioneer of the environmental movement.
Wild Kingdom has run over several decades, appearing in a variety of iterations and formats that include an online video series. The program has also won several Emmy Awards, airing on two hundred stations in North America and in 40 countries around the world. Perkins appeared as a guest on other television programs, delivered lectures on animal life, received numerous honorary degrees and awards and authored several books, including his 1982 autobiography My Wild Kingdom. The famed host did face controversy however when allegations were made via "Cruel Camera," an episode of the Canadian CBC program The Fifth Estate, that Wild Kingdom staged some of its televised animal interactions, with concern over animal welfare presented as well.
Later Years and Death
In 1970, Perkins retired from his zoological career. However, he would retain his affiliation with the St. Louis Zoo and continued his life’s work in animal protection and conservation with projects that included the founding of the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri.
Perkins remained the host of Wild Kingdom until 1985, when declining health forced him to leave the show. He died of cancer on June 14, 1986, at home in Clayton, Missouri, at the age of 81. Five years later, the St. Louis Zoo created the Marlin Perkins Society to continue his work in his name.
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