“Hello, and welcome to Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”
—Marlin Perkins’s introduction to his weekly show
If you watched television in the 1960s and 1970s, the odds are you watched Marlin Perkins on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Perkins exposed an entire generation of people to the amazing characteristics of wild animals and how people and nature can work together in harmony. He went around the world to showcase the most amazing animals on the planet. He wrestled giant boa constrictors in the wild, tracked crocodiles, and dodged a stampede of elephants. His love of nature gave all of us a better understanding of the wild animals around us.
THE EARLY YEARS
Marlin Perkins was born in Carthage, Missouri, on March 28, 1905. He lived there for a short time before his mother died, when he moved in with his aunt on a farm in Pittsburg, Kansas. It was on the farm where he showed an interest in animals and actually created his own personal zoo consisting of snakes, frogs, and other “creatures.” He lived there for nine years before returning to live in Carthage with his father, Joseph Dudley Perkins, a prominent judge in Jasper County.
He continued to collect all sorts of animals during his teenage years, which was spent between Carthage and Pittsburg. After graduation from high school, he headed to the University of Missouri–Columbia to study zoology and gain an even greater understanding of the animals he loved.
RISE TO FAME
Perkins didn’t stay at Mizzou very long. The world-famous Saint Louis Zoo was only two hours away, and he was more interested in learning from the animals firsthand. At the age of twenty-one, he took a job with the ground crew at the Zoo so he could be closer to the animals.
His love of snakes proved to be a valuable skill right from the start of his new job. He informed the zoo director that he wanted a greater role in taking care of the reptiles. The Reptilian Department was small, with only six animals, so the director put him in charge of the exhibit. Marlin took that small role and turned it into a major success. Soon the reptile collection under his care was one of the zoo’s most popular attractions. Two years after his entry-level appointment, Perkins was the curator of Reptiles with a collection of animals that expanded to five hundred over the next eleven years.
Perkins showed that he was capable of taking care of animals while getting others interested in them as well. He was ready to spread his wings to bigger challenges, so he took a job in 1938 as the director of the New York Zoological Gardens in Buffalo. Six years later, he was hired in Chicago as the director of the Lincoln Park Zoo. Qhile working at the zoo in Chicago, he took his love for animals to the small screen. His live TV show called Zoo Parade made him a national celebrity in 1945. His natural charisma and gentle manner with the animals was a hit with audiences from coast to coast. Not only was the audience entertained, but Marlin was also fulfilling a personal mission of educating people about the habitat and behavior of these wild animals.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
Perkins returned to St. Louis in 1962 to take over as the zoo’s director and immediately began working on a new television program. Under his leadership, he made the Saint Louis Zoo one of the premier zoological parks in the country, while also building his show into one of the most successful nature shows in history. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom debuted in January 1963, less than one year after he moved back to St. Louis. The show was produced for twenty-seven years and racked up four Emmy Awards. The show also became the first television series to receive the Parent Teacher Association’s “Recommended for Family Viewing” designation.
Perkins retired from the zoo in 1970, but he remained in the St. Louis area until his death at his home in Clayton in 1986. Until his death, he worked on ecological projects around the country, but primarily in the Show Me State. His amazing life was memorialized in 1993, when the Saint Louis Zoo founded the Marlin Perkins Society to carry on his dream for conserving endangered species and nurturing their existence.
* Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was shown on two hundred stations in North America and in more than forty countries worldwide.
*Marlin was the zoologist for Sir Edmund Hillary’s expedition in 1960 to climb Mount Everest in the Himalayas.
*Perkins was given honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Missouri–Columbia, Northland College in Wisconsin,
Rockhurst College in Kansas City, MacMurray College in Illinois, and College of St. Mary in Nebraska.