When we were just little kids, Sunday night meant kids television: The Wonderful World of Disney and, before it, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. We’d rush through dinner in anticipation of flying over a herd of antelope or sneaking up on a tiger, all before discovering that Kurt Russell was the strongest man in the world and an absent-minded professor had invented flubber.
Today is the anniversary of the birth of Marlin Perkins, host of Wild Kingdom. He was born in Carthage, Missouri, in 1905, and his first zoo job was as a groundskeeper at the St. Louis Zoological Park, for which he was paid $3.75 per week in 1926. He ran Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago for eighteen years before returning as Director to the St. Louis Zoo.
While at the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Chicago area’s smaller, urban zoo, Perkins developed a television show called Zoo Parade. This show featured Perkins interacting with the zoo’s animals, just as Jim Fowler and Joan Embery later did on The Tonight Show. Chicago is no stranger to television production, from Kukla, Fran and Ollie to Oprah, and this locally based series made both the zoo and Perkins well known. We are no strangers to Chicago, and Lincoln Park Zoo, which has free admission and is open every day, was Anna’s childhood zoo. In fact, her poem “At the Sea Lion Pool” appears in the new anthology City of the Big Shoulders. All photos in this post were taken at Lincoln Park Zoo in 2010.
While many viewers of Wild Kingdom mistakenly remember Perkins being bitten by a poisonous snake on camera, the real story stems from Zoo Parade, when Perkins was bitten by a rattlesnake during rehearsal. But the event wasn’t mentioned in the episode. That said, Perkins didn’t mind non-venomous snakes taking a chomp, if only to prove to Wild Kingdom viewers how harmless most snakes are.
Jim Fowler, the zoo director who had monkeys hugging Johnny Carson, got his start as Marlin Perkins’ sidekick on Wild Kingdom. Jim, in fact, is remembered fondly for doing much of the hard work, while Perkins narrated calmly. Eventually, in 1985, Perkins retired, and Jim hosted the show himself. Perkins died of cancer a year later.
As kids, we didn’t realize that most of the episodes we saw were reruns, though new episodes were filmed through 1987. We wouldn’t have cared anyway. Mister Rogers, I Dream of Jeannie, and Star Trek were reruns too. It’s not as if we thought Perkins and Fowler were running away from a lumbering bull seal or that a mother elephant was charging Jim’s jeep at that very moment.
Wild Kingdom has been criticized, of course, for the way it created neat thirty-minute stories and for the human-centered way it talked about animals. Admittedly, the show was filmed and edited to provide viewers like us with some Sunday evening drama. But as opposed to much of today’s reality television, Wild Kingdom claimed that nothing was staged to tell a preconceived story and that they didn’t do things that would put animals in danger. That’s a slippery argument, of course, because driving a jeep toward a mother elephant or lassoing an alligator for relocation could be considered staging, and, to anthropomorphize for a second, that alligator might have defined harm differently. But for the 1970s, Wild Kingdom was relatively progressive in its portrayal of and interaction with animals in the their natural habitats.
Now, the show seems dated. In the episode “Lion Country” (see the video below), we may question the opening sequence that ends with a lion standing over a zebra carcass, a bloody chunk eaten from the prey’s buttocks. Was that really what parents wanted their little tykes to see before the magical stories of Disney? For its time, Wild Kingdom was pretty honest about the ups and downs of life as we—animals—know it.
We may question the next segment of “Lion Country” too, as we spend some time with Marlin Perkins in his office for a brief background lecture on lions. Perkins holds W. K., the well-dressed, affectionate chimp named after the show’s title. On Perkins’ desk, Lester, a young lion, is snacking on some ground meat. W. K. pats Lester on the head. It’s a cheesy, everyone-gets-along if we all play by the rules situation.
Perkins’ lecture, though, goes on to talk about how a young lion must learn to be king of the jungle, that he’s not born with the skills and behaviors he will need to survive as a lion. While an oversimplified explanation of the importance of nurture (but at least posed in addition to, not versus, nature), where else on television was an American kid in the the early 1970s going to see images of Africa or hear about how animals learn? Perkins goes on to talk about hunting as an art and about lions having their own culture, though he doesn’t use the word culture. (For a related post on animals and empathy, click HERE.) Is he anthropomorphizing, or presaging current investigation into animal intelligence?