5 Beastly Secrets Behind Wild Kingdom

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Fifty-eight years ago today (May 28), Zoo Parade premiered on NBC. For its first five seasons, the show was broadcast from Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo. The series' host, Marlin Perkins, also just happened to be Lincoln Park's director. By the time Zoo Parade went off the air, Perkins was thoroughly convinced that television was in desperate need more wildlife programming, and Wild Kingdom was born.

1. Marlin Perkins Slayed the Abominable Snowman
Picture 14.pngBack when TV was limited to the networks and a handful of local stations, before there was an Animal Planet or a Crocodile Hunter, Wild Kingdom was the only place average Americans could see polar bears or hippopotami in their natural habitat from the comfort of their living rooms. The program was typically aired right after family-friendly fare like Hee-Haw or The Lawrence Welk Show. White-haired Marlin Perkins, who looked more like an insurance salesman than the zoologist that he really was, hosted Wild Kingdom during its original syndicated run from 1963 to 1985. Prior to television stardom, Perkins had gained a small amount of fame for debunking the myth of the Abominable Snowman. On an excursion to the Himalayas with Sir Edmund Hillary, Perkins deduced that the Yeti's "large" footprints were actually made form a series of tracks made by foxes and other small animals. The tracks melted together in the sun, turning into larger shapes.

2. The Moment Everyone Remembers that Never Actually Happened

Picture 51.pngTalk to Baby Boomers who grew up watching Wild Kingdom and many of them will breathlessly recall the episode where Marlin Perkins was bitten by a poisonous snake. True, Perkins was a reptile aficionado and had kept snakes as pets since he was a child. He also never hesitated to handle non-venomous snakes on-camera in an effort to show that the slithery creatures were as harmless as kittens. Back when he was still hosting Zoo Parade, Marlin did ill-advisedly pick up a timber rattlesnake during the pre-show camera blocking. The rattler nipped Perkins on the finger and he spent three weeks in the hospital recuperating from the bite. However, all of this happened off-camera and was not filmed. Yet Perkins reported in his 1982 autobiography that he regularly met Wild Kingdom fans who reminisced about watching in horror on TV that fateful day when that rattlesnake sank its fangs into his hand.

3. Jungle Jim Fowler "“ The Guy Who Did the Grunt Work
Picture 2.pngJim Fowler graduated from Earlham College with degrees in zoology and geology. The naturalist was a well-known expert in predatory birds when he teamed up with Perkins to co-host Wild Kingdom. Jim had studied animals in the wilds of Africa and South America, and had years of experience filming them. Yet, no matter how impressive his credentials, it was always clear that he was the worker bee while Perkins ruled the hive. Perkins, nattily dressed in a safari jacket and pith helmet, rarely got his hands dirty or broke a sweat as he poked his head out from the safety of his Jeep and earnestly set the scene ("Let's watch while Jim attempts to circumcise this rabid wolverine.")

4. How Man-Eating Pythons Helped the Insurance Business
Picture 41.png No, the Bushmen of New Guinea didn't start taking out huge policies"¦ V.J. Skutt, then the CEO of Mutual of Omaha, was a conservationist at heart and he agreed with Marlin Perkins that providing TV viewers with a realistic look at animals in their natural habitat would inspire folks to get interested in ecology and wildlife preservation. Skutt decided to sponsor Perkins' new brainchild, Wild Kingdom, and the show's instant popularity surprised everyone involved. It was one of the very few syndicated series ever to be nominated for an Emmy award, and "“ more importantly "“ it made the previously little-known insurance company a household name across the country. Mutual of Omaha's annual premium income grew into the billions of dollars.

5. All Was Not What It Seemed
During those early years of Wild Kingdom, most viewers were naïve in the ways of wild animals and it never occurred to us to ask "Just how did that baby moose happen to get stuck in the mud pit at the same time a camera crew was nearby?" In 1982, the producers of the CBC series The Fifth Estate (sort of a Canadian 60 Minutes) aired an episode titled "Cruel Camera," which examined the treatment of animals in the entertainment industry. The show's host, Bob McKeown approached an 80-something Marlin Perkins for an impromptu interview, asking whether Wild Kingdom had ever interfered with nature for the sake of drama. Perkins (whom most of us still remembered as the mild-mannered man responsible for such awkward segues as "Just like the mother bear protects her cubs, Mutual of Omaha is there to protect your family"¦") first demanded that the cameras be shut off, then proceeded to punch McKeown in the face when his request was denied.

The Fifth Estate recently aired a follow-up to "Cruel Camera," and it breaks our collective heart to report that despite the supposed supervision of the American Humane Association, all these years later animals are still being exploited and abused in the name of entertainment. WARNING: This video is heart-wrenching in parts and difficult to watch, but is an important statement on behalf of those creatures who cannot speak for themselves.

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May 28, 2008 - 6:25am
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