In the 1930s, the chimps at the St. Louis Zoo were the joy of my life. They roller-skated and boxed and--dressed in sailor suits stitched by the elephant keeper's wife--they drank from teacups. Spitting Sam the orangutan rode a bike, in uniform, and saluted. That kind of clowning is out of fashion. Marlin Perkins, retired from the St. Louis Zoo, but still, at 77, hosting the "Wild Kingdom" television series, did a show recently on the bleeding-heart baboons of Ethiopia. Not a teacup in sight. No trace of anthropomorphism, but a sense, all the same, of the great good fortune to watch wild animals.
Perkins, now with four Emmy awards and as many honorary doctorates, joined the zoo staff without a degree. On applying, he said he intended to make wild animals his career and showed a pamphlet he'd written to inform farmers of the dollar value to them of snakes. As reptiles curator, through the Depression, he kept his cash in the rattlers' cage. Later he became director. Enthusiast and innovator (keen on zoo nurseries, improved nutrition, punchy labels, natural-habitat exhibits and breeding preserves), he early knew that publicity and promotion are the lifeblood of a zoo and he kept the media posted on zoo happenings.
Here he offers an autobiography well larded with snake-eat-snake episodes, gorilla escapes, sketches of zoo "personalities" and their keepers, anecdotes from collecting-trips and from on-location filming. His brushes with disaster--viper and rattler bites and being tusked aside by an elephant--make good copy. The elephant was not attacking, Perkins points out, but responding to the command "Zeet!" from his mahout--meaning, step ahead and lie down.
Self-assured and cheerful, Perkins writes in a kind of Weekly Reader style, comfortable with his cliche's, straightforward and natural, breaking into little sermons as he thinks the occasion requires.
His childhood in Carthage, Mo., was spent in active play with older brothers who invented games and contraptions, even a glider for sending him aloft. The family had a work horse. Young Marlin read Boy's Life and Popular Mechanics. At age 7, the year his mother died, he toured the country in a Model T. The boys' job: to clean grasshoppers from the radiator.
At age 8, he rode a trolley to school. Permission to charge cookies on account--to sustain him on the way home--gave him "a wonderful feeling of security." And his introduction in the classroom to a handsome bullsnake started him on the snake-catching that became a lifelong preoccupation. St. Louis businessmen still remind him of their long-ago hunts with a stick and sacks as he coached them through the Boy Scout reptiles merit badge.
At the St. Louis zoo, Perkins took easily to radio--once blowing radio station KMOX off the air with his demonstration of electric eels. And he was quick to see television as a perfect medium for his purposes. He'd carry a bullfrog to the station and talk extemporaneously. Air time soon netted him twice what he made as zoo director. Then he hit on the plan to go on location. Twenty years ago, Mutual of Omaha became his "Wild Kingdom" sponsor--on condition that he do their commercials. And that program has enjoyed one of the longest runs in TV history. Families sup to its footage on Nature's food chain. The Monty Python bunch spoofs its format (not to say apes it).
There's no missing Perkins' sense of fun in slipping crocodiles into hotel rooms by night and traveling with gorillas. (At a Paris stop he had to give his gorillas lipsmacking proof that French bread is edible even if lacking in the crunchy weevils they fancied.) Not missing, either, the sense of gratitude for people like the Smithsonian primatologist who recognizes his 500 macaques by sight ("that's Lucy with the line on her lip") or the naturalist who spots camouflaged snowy owls by looking for spots whiter than snow. Perkins as a boy with a toad in his pocket never expected to swim one day with a pod of whales or travel with the Lapps on their reindeer drive or walk in a forest where chimps whoowhoo in the trees.
A high point of his life was an expedition with Sir Edmund Hillary to seek the Abominable Snowman, or yeti. Found, in lieu of the fabled creature: natural explanations. Alleged yeti skins were of the rare Himalayan blue bear. Tracks were fox tracks, melted into larger shapes. The belief will live on that the creature has yet to be discovered, says Perkins, who definitely wants to be in on the hunt.