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Marlin Perkins

zoologist who gained fame as the host of a nature program

Marlin Perkins

Richard Marlin Perkins was born in Carthage, Missouri, on March 28, 1905, the youngest of three sons of Joseph Dudley and Mynta Mae (Miller) Perkins. His mother died when he was seven, and he spent the next nine years of his life on an aunt's farm near Pittsburg, Kansas. Already interested in animals by this age, he created his own miniature zoo (mostly snakes, mice, earthworms, and toads) while on the farm, and continued to keep a variety of animals after moving back to Carthage with his father.

Perkins studied zoology at the University of Missouri in Columbia, but quit in 1926, before earning his degree, and got hired onto the laborer crew at the St. Louis Zoological Gardens. Two weeks after being hired, Perkins was placed in charge of the zoo's reptile collection, which at the time consisted of just six animals. Marlin developed the collection and designed cages for a full-scale reptile exhibit which, contrary to the Zoo's Board of Directors' expectations, drew large crowds. A permanent exhibition was approved, and within two years of his initial hiring Marlin was named Curator of Reptiles. By the time he moved on in 1938 the zoo's reptile exhibit housed some 500 animals.

Perkins left St. Louis to become curator of the New York Zoological Gardens in Buffalo, New York, and remained there until 1944, when he became director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois. His television career began in Chicago when, in 1945, he debuted "Zoo Parade," a live show featuring animals from Lincoln Park Zoo. With this program, Marlin utilized the theatrics of animal behavior by displaying an animal live on the air and accompanying it with a monologue on the animal's habitat, behavior and genetic history. In 1949, the program went national and was carried coast to coast by NBC until its end in 1957; the show was filmed at Lincoln Park until 1955, and from various zoos across the country afterwards. He became director of the St. Louis Zoo in 1962, and remained in that position until retiring from zookeeping in 1970.

The show for which Perkins is remembered, Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom," debuted on NBC on January 5, 1963. Featuring Perkins and co-host Jim Fowler, the show featured a wide variety of animals from around the world, in the wild, and usually included Perkins providing narrative while Fowler did most of the "hands-on" work. By 1971 the show had earned five Emmy Awards and was being aired in forty countries. Reruns were syndicated to local stations beginning in the fall of 1971, interspersed with newly-produced shows that were produced until 1988. Fowler assumed the host's role in 1985, when Perkins' failing health forced his departure.

Marlin Perkins died of cancer in his Clayton, Missouri, home on June 14, 1986.

Pages of Interest

Hall of Famous Missourians
Saint Louis Zoo

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This page was last updated on 01/06/2019.