Marlin Perkins holding a bison calf. [Marlin Perkins Papers (S0516), State Historical Society of Missouri]
Marlin Perkins (bottom left) helping wrangle a snake. [Marlin Perkins Papers (S0516), State Historical Society of Missouri]

Marlin Perkins served as director at three zoos during his career: the Zoological Gardens in Buffalo, New York; the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago; and the St. Louis Zoo. During his tenure in Chicago he first appeared on WBKB, an experimental television station broadcasting to three hundred receivers in the Chicago area and then on network television. He went on to become one of the world’s best-known zoologists by hosting Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, an Emmy Award–winning television program reaching 35 million people in forty countries, from 1963 to 1985.

Richard Marlin Perkins was born in Carthage, Missouri, on March 28, 1905, the third son of Joseph Dudley and Mynta Mae Miller Perkins. After “trying railroading, farming, and carpentry,” Joseph Perkins decided to become a lawyer and eventually was elected to the Jasper County circuit court, a position he held for twenty years. Mynta Perkins died of pneumonia just before Marlin turned seven years old, and he was sent to Pittsburg, Kansas, to live with his mother’s sister and her husband. Perkins enrolled in the third grade of the Pittsburg Normal School, and it was there he became interested in snakes when a zoology professor brought one to class. Soon “snake catching became a favorite occupation.”

In 1919 Perkins entered Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri. Two years later his father married Laura Gashweiler, a widow, and Marlin returned to Carthage. After he completed high school in 1923 he took a year off to visit his brothers in California. The next fall he entered the University of Missouri in the College of Agriculture, taking courses in zoology and animal husbandry. For the annual agricultural fair, Perkins wrote a pamphlet and arranged an “educational exhibit to show farmers the value of snakes.” As a result of a zoology class, he became more interested in wild animals and transferred to the College of Arts and Sciences. Deciding he needed to be sure that he wanted to work with wild animals before he continued his education, he left college after his sophomore year and took his first job with the St. Louis Zoo in 1926.

The zoo hired him as a laborer sweeping sidewalks, trimming hedges, and mowing grass for $3.75 per day. Two weeks later he was made a relief animal keeper, which took him all over the zoo raking animal yards, scrubbing walls, and cleaning cages. After two months he was placed in charge of the reptiles, all six of them, which were housed in a basement and not on display.

George Vierheller, the zoo’s director, authorized a temporary exhibit to demonstrate public interest in a reptile house to the governing board. After two weeks, waiting lines on Sundays for the exhibit were a block long. The board soon sanctioned the design and construction of a reptile house. In the spring of 1927 while the reptile house was being built, Perkins spent six weeks studying under Raymond L. Ditmars, curator of reptiles at the Bronx Zoo, who encouraged him to go on a snake-hunting expedition both to acquire snakes and generate publicity.

In 1928 Perkins suffered a life-threatening bite from a forty-five-inch Gaboon viper. The snake bit him on his left index finger as he cleaned mites from its face. Perkins was rushed to a hospital, and since there was no Gaboon-viper antivenom available, he received North American anti-snakebite serum, cobra antivenom, and serum made from the venom of the fer­-de-lance, as well as several blood transfusions. He remained in the hospital for three weeks, and it took him six months to recuperate. Ironically, the viper died the day Perkins left the hospital. Undeterred and following Ditmars’s advice, during the latter part of 1929 Perkins made a trip to Panama, Guatemala, and Honduras, where he collected snakes, crocodiles, iguanas, turtles, and an armadillo. During the next eleven years he built the zoo’s collection to five hundred specimens.

In 1930 when Perkins was twenty-five years old and earning $3,300 per year, he married Elise More. Their daughter, Suzanne, was born in 1937, and the following year Perkins accepted the directorship of the zoo in Buffalo, New York. The Works Progress Administration was in the process of building a new zoo in Buffalo when Perkins arrived. The only available space for his office was in an old, stinking building, so bad that Perkins threw up the first time he entered it. He spent little time in his office. The Buffalo Zoological Gardens was funded by the city government. It was regarded as a nonessential service, and as a result was always short of funds. Perkins therefore jumped at the chance to become director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, where he served from 1944 to 1962.

In an effort to educate visitors, Perkins revised the identifying labels of the animals and provided a children’s zoo and zoo nursery. To publicize the zoo, he appeared on experimental television from 1945 to 1949, when twenty-eight NBC stations picked up the program and carried it as Zoo Parade. As part of a continuous effort to improve the program, Perkins traveled to Africa in 1955 to film on location. During the summer of 1957 he filmed the show along the Amazon River for two months, but when he returned home he learned that Zoo Parade had been canceled.

In 1953 Perkins and his wife divorced, and on August 13, 1960, he married Carol Morse Cotsworth, who had three children. Two weeks after the wedding he left for Nepal with Edmund Hillary on an expedition to look for the Abominable Snowman. In 1962 Perkins began negotiations with Mutual of Omaha to develop Wild Kingdom. That summer he was offered the job of director of the St. Louis Zoo. To allow for Perkins’s continued television work, the Wild Kingdom production company made an agreement with the Zoological Board of Control to pay the zoo $25,000 per year for Perkins’s involvement in the show, and at the end of September Perkins moved to St. Louis.

As director, Perkins increased the zoo’s staff, built a large parking lot, fenced the grounds, constructed a miniature railroad and a central plaza, reconstructed the waterfowl ponds and the 1904 World’s Fair birdcage, and developed an educational department. When he reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five in 1970, he became director emeritus.

Perkins received an American Education Award in 1974 and was granted honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Missouri–Columbia; Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin; Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri; McMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois; and the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. He received the Criss Award for meritorious service and in 1978 was given a special award from the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums when the board “created a Marlin Perkins Award, to be presented to a member of AAZPA who made a special, outstanding contribution to the zoo profession.” Perkins wrote four books, including an autobiography.

After retirement Perkins gave more time to Wild Kingdom and continued as host until, after twenty­three seasons, illness forced him to retire in 1985. He died of cancer at his home on June 14, 1986.

Further Reading

Forsyth, Patricia. “That Awful Perkins Boy.” Missouri Life 6 (October 1978): 23–27.

Leonard, Mary Delach. Animals Always: 100 Years at the St. Louis Zoo. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2009.

Obituary. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 15, 1986.

Perkins, Marlin. My Wild Kingdom: An Autobiography. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982.

———. Papers. S0516. State Historical Society of Missouri, St. Louis.

Published February 2, 2024; Last updated March 2, 2024

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