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Noted Zoologist’s Show Won 4 Emmys, Was Seen Worldwide : Marlin Perkins of ‘Wild Kingdom’ Dies

Times Staff Writer

Marlin Perkins, a noted zoologist who entertained television viewers for two decades with his program, “Wild Kingdom,” died of cancer Saturday. He was 81.

A family spokesman said that Perkins, who had been suffering with lymph cancer for two years, died at 4 p.m. at his home in St. Louis.

Perkins, who claimed he never met an animal he didn’t like, hosted “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” for 23 years before retiring last year. The program pioneered the filming of animals in their natural habitats, and Perkins and co-host Jim Fowler would walk among the creatures--and occasionally would have to run away from them.

NBC began broadcasting “Wild Kingdom” in 1963 and aired it for nine years. Mutual of Omaha, the insurance company which had been its sponsor from the beginning, then syndicated it through its own network.

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Widely Broadcast

At the height of its popularity, the show, winner of four Emmy Awards, was seen on 200 stations in North America and in more than 40 nations.

The program revolved around Perkins’ boyish enthusiasm and comfortable Midwestern manner, which continued even as cancer began wracking his body.

“I’ve slowed down, there’s no question about it,” he said in an interview last year. But heartened by tests that showed the cancer in remission after a year of chemical and radiation therapy, he was making plans for a journey to Africa.

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“As soon as this thing clears up,” he said, “I think I’ll begin my exercises and regain my vigor.”

Perkins had beaten death before. While serving as curator of the St. Louis Zoo in 1928, he became one of the first known survivors of a bite by an African Gaboon viper.

“We were washing him with a sponge when he made an unexpected lunge and caught me in the right index finger. I spent three weeks in the hospital. It was touch-and-go for awhile.”

But, he added philosophically, “How can you blame a snake who bites you?”

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On another occasion, while preparing to film a sequence for “Wild Kingdom” in India, Perkins was badly injured by an elephant.

Perkins was standing in front of the elephant, he recalled later, while its handlers ordered it to lie down so that Perkins could mount it and ride past the cameras. But elephants lie down by stretching out their front legs first, and this elephant did not have enough room to do so because Perkins was standing too close.

The elephant reached out with its tusk and swatted Perkins aside, knocking him unconscious. He suffered a broken nose, fractured cheekbones and several cracked ribs. He emerged from the hospital five days later to finish the show.

“It was pretty painful, but I made it,” he said. “I don’t blame the elephant for what he did. He meant me no harm.”

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Vigor characterized Perkins’ career with animals ever since he was put in charge of reptiles at the St. Louis Zoo in 1926 at the age of 21. He later served as curator of the Municipal Zoo at Buffalo, N.Y., before being appointed as the director of Lincoln Park Zoo on the North Side of Chicago in 1945.

Childhood Interest

Perkins’ love for animals dated from his early childhood in Carthage, Mo. By the age of 3, he was scaring his mother with his collection of pet snakes. Although he owned a dog like most other boys, he also began collecting rabbits, squirrels and opossums to such a degree that he was referred to by his neighbors as “that awful Perkins boy,” according to a 1947 Time magazine story.

His affection for snakes continued at Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Mo., where he kept the reptiles in his closet.

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After graduating from Carthage High School in 1923, he entered the University of Missouri, and majored in zoology. But he dropped out of the university after two years.

While he headed the Chicago zoo, Perkins introduced new specimens and new ways of displaying animals, prompting a surge in the zoo’s popularity. He also developed the idea to put animals on television, and became the host of “Zoo Parade,” a show that promoted the zoo and ran for 12 years on NBC.

When “Zoo Parade” was canceled in 1957, Perkins developed the idea for “Wild Kingdom,” where television viewers would be able to see animals in their natural environment rather than in the confines of a zoo or a studio.

Resided Near Zoo

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Perkins was first married in 1933 to Elise More, was divorced in 1960, and married Carol Cotsworth. The couple lived in a house only minutes from the St. Louis Zoo.

Carol Perkins once said her husband’s love of animals was not confined to on-camera escapades. “Soon after our marriage, we went to the Belgian Congo,” she said. One night, she reached for her 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.’ ”


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