Marlin Perkins

updated 08/09/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/09/1982 01:00AM

"You know what it's like being married to Marlin?" asks Carol Perkins. "Soon after our marriage we went to the Belgian Congo, and after weeks of traipsing around and trying not to complain, I was exhausted. One night I said I didn't want dinner, only to go to bed. So I undressed, reached for my pillow, and out from underneath crawled an enormous lizard that ran up my chest and down my arm. I started to scream and couldn't stop. I was so tired of being brave. Marlin came running, and after he saw I wasn't really injured he put his arm around me and said, 'Honey, think how lucky you were to see him up close!' "

Perkins, in fact, has been trying to put people on a first-name basis with animals for most of his 77 years. By the time he was 3, he was already frightening his mother with his collection of pet snakes; at 39, he was named director of Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. Only one year later, with television still in its infancy, he made his first broadcast to promote the zoo to the public. This fall will begin the 21st year of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, successor to NBC's popular Zooparade, establishing Perkins as one of U.S. TV's true Methuselahs.

But such longevity hasn't come easy. On New Year's Eve, 1928, as curator of reptiles at the St. Louis Zoo, he became one of the first known survivors of the bite of Africa's deadly Gaboon viper. Perkins had been cleansing the snake of mites when it lunged, sinking one of its needle-sharp two-inch fangs into his left index finger. Ironically, Perkins had ordered a shipment of Gaboon viper antivenin from the Pasteur Institute in Paris, but the life-saving serum was still in mid-Atlantic. Rushed to a hospital, he was treated with an improvised combination of blood transfusions, antitoxins and other medication as he clung to life. Miraculously, though his left arm became grotesquely swollen from his hand to his shoulder, Perkins was able to leave the hospital three weeks later and recovered completely after six months. The snake was less fortunate: It died the day Perkins went home.

Another reptile mishap was less chilling but perhaps more embarrassing, coming just 20 minutes before a performance of Zooparade. "When I talk about handling animals, I always start by saying the most important thing is not to hurry," he explains. "So on this occasion I broke my own rule. I wanted to get the rehearsal over with, and I caught a rattlesnake so fast I didn't have a proper hold on him. He twisted in my hand and bit me." While Marlin went off to the hospital, an assistant went on with the show. "It wasn't the greatest show we ever did," Perkins recalls. "The opening shot was a pan across the elephant cage to the title, which was written on a large card tied to the bars. But when the camera got there, there wasn't a title. The elephant had eaten it."

A forgiving man where animals are concerned, Perkins didn't cut the pachyderm's rations. Nor was he vengefully inclined several years later when another elephant nearly dismembered him. Marlin was in India, walking a few steps ahead of the beast, waiting for the handlers to command the elephant to lie down. Then Perkins was to mount up and be photographed as he rode past the camera. What he didn't know was that elephants lie down by stretching out their front legs first, and this one didn't have enough room. The elephant solved the problem by simply reaching out with a tusk and swatting Perkins aside like a gnat. When Perkins regained consciousness, he had a broken nose, fractured cheekbones and several cracked ribs. Five days later he went back and finished the show. "It was pretty painful, but I made it," he says. "I don't blame the elephant for what he did. He meant me no harm."

Despite the occasional battering, Perkins doesn't think of himself as a stuntman. "We're not looking for glory or some dangerous adventure to record on film," he says. "Mostly I'm alone with a photographer who needs quiet to get close to whatever he's filming. We don't want to get anybody hurt." Lean, fit and still remarkably agile, Perkins lives in St. Louis but spends half the year traveling and finishes a half-hour show every two to four weeks. Turning out an average of a dozen shows a year, he has 272 Wild Kingdom episodes in the can and is not worried that he will run out of subjects. "At the beginning, producer Don Meier and I drew up a list of 300 ideas," he says. "They stay on the list until they get filmed." Perkins spends the rest of the year doing research, giving lectures and writing. His fourth book, an autobiography, My Wild Kingdom (E.P. Dutton Inc., $14.95), is due to be released in November. "Sometimes I wonder how he keeps up with the schedule," marvels his chief cameraman, Warren Garst. "He says, 'You've just got to have the right genes,' and he's sure got 'em."

The youngest of three boys, Richard Marlin Perkins was born in Carthage, Mo., where his father was a circuit court judge. When he was nearly 7, his mother nursed him through a bout with pneumonia, then died of the illness herself, leaving him with a burden of guilt that took years to dispel. Soon afterward his grieving father sent the two older boys off to private school and Marlin to his Aunt Laura's farm in Pittsburg, Kans. There Marlin loved to follow the horses and bring home whatever the plow blade unearthed, mainly snakes, mice, earthworms and toads. For a while he hid his creatures under the house. When Aunt Laura found out and evicted them, he offered to work free for a neighboring farmer, pitching hay to fill the stalls in his barn. "That way the farmer never came up to the hayloft, and I could hide my snakes where it was dark and warm," he explains.

At 14, Marlin was enrolled at Went-worth Military Academy and once again ran afoul of ophidiophobia. "I was keeping blue racers in my closet," he recalls, "completely nonpoisonous. But the captain said, 'I've been in India. I know all about snakes. Out they go.' " Two years later Perkins' father remarried—with Marlin as best man—and reopened the family home back in Carthage. Marlin played center for the Carthage High football team, got so-so marks, and often skipped school to go fishing. After graduation he bummed around the West for a year, then went to the University of Missouri to study agriculture.

From the beginning, he was as much teacher as student. As a freshman, he wrote a pamphlet warning farmers not to kill snakes because they kept down the population of mice. "I figured out the annual birthrate for a pair of mice and proved that just one mouse could consume $5 worth of grain in a year," he says proudly. "That was a lot of money in those days." Once, with misguided enthusiasm, he pulled a king snake out of his pocket to show a girlfriend. "I honestly thought she'd like it as much as I did," he recalls, "but she had hysterics and couldn't work for four days. That ended the romance."

Disenchanted with agriculture, Perkins changed his major to zoology, then quit to take a cleanup job at the St. Louis Zoo. The director there was George Vierheller, a flamboyant man with a reputation for showmanship, whom Perkins once described as "my maestro." Within two years he made Perkins curator of reptiles and began schooling him in the art of public relations.

In 1938 Perkins became curator of the Buffalo Zoo. Six years later he moved to Chicago. Soon afterward a local TV station invited him to do some live spots with animals. "I'd talk until I ran out of steam or the animals got tired," he recalls. "Then a woman would come on and play the piano. Or maybe she wouldn't. I think there were 300 television receivers in the area, and we never thought the program would last." Unexpectedly, the show was an instant success, and in 1949 it was relayed by coaxial cable to New York. NBC broadcast it over its network the following year and didn't drop it until 1957, when Perkins and Meier vowed to replace it. Wild Kingdom began production in 1962 and has been in syndication since 1971. It is carried on 224 stations in the U.S. and in more than 40 countries worldwide.

First married in 1933 to the late Elise More of St. Paul, Minn., Perkins was divorced in 1953 and was remarried in 1960 to an old friend, Carol Cotsworth. Together, they have four grown children by their first marriages—including Perkins' daughter, Suzanne—and six grandchildren. The couple live in a modest white frame house only minutes from the St. Louis Zoo ("the next best thing to living in a cage," says Carol), where Marlin has been director emeritus since 1970. They keep one cat and five Lhasa Apsos. Perkins believes more exotic specimens belong in the zoo. "A few mammals and nonpoisonous snakes can make domestic pets, but generally I'm opposed to it," he says. "Animals go through puberty, too, and most people don't know how to care for them."

Not surprisingly, Perkins is a staunch defender of zoos, rebutting critics who believe all animals should be left in the wild. "Today's zoos have evolved from the old, smelly places with bars and wires," he maintains. "Virtually all the major ones are breeding rare or endangered species, and there are several examples of animals that have escaped extinction because of zoos. The Phoenix Zoo helped save the Arabian oryx antelope, and Dr. W.T. Hornaday, the first director of the Bronx Zoo, was instrumental in preserving the American buffalo. Most zoo animals are healthier than they would have been in their wild state."

Though Perkins has never been a hunter himself, he is not offended by hunting per se. Yet he is appalled by the negligent extermination of some types of wildlife. "We don't have a moral right to eliminate any species, no matter what happens," he says, "because we don't know how they fit into that little bioecological area where they live. Some can be enormously beneficial to mankind." As an example of shortsighted slaughter, he cites the reckless eradication of wolves. "Today there are no wolves left in most of the contiguous 48 states," Perkins explains. "People killed them because they killed livestock. But they also preserved a natural balance. With the wolves gone, Yellowstone National Park has had problems keeping down the population of elk. It would have been smarter to pay the ranchers for any animals killed by wolves, and better for the ecology of the park." To help the species survive, he and Carol have worked to create a 50-acre sanctuary for the endangered animals only 20 miles from St. Louis. "The golden rule, as I live it," says the curator, "is tolerance, kindness and respect for your fellow man and for the animals that live in nature. These things are part of my life."

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