Man and Beast and Marlin Perkins

“But now,” declared Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, “we have to prove the connection between the man and the beast.”  Holmes referred, of course, to connecting a hound and a man, but his statement also sums up a general human fascination with finding mythical beings.  In particular, humans have a yearning to find long-lost humans, or what they hope are humans, and so they go on quests for creatures such as Bigfoot or Yeti.

In Book 16 of the City of God, Saint Augustine drew upon Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and more recent anecdotes to relate reports of various human curiosities.  Augustine noted pygmies and hermaphrodites and also what used to be called Siamese twins.  Augustine’s point was that however unusual, they are human and therefore possess souls.

All the anomalies considered by Augustine lived in distant provinces or in lands outside the Roman Empire.  With calm detachment, humans always accept the bizarre as being beyond the horizon.  Meanwhile, they soon lose patience with the oddball living next door.

In 1959, having climbed to the top of Mount Everest six years earlier, New Zealand’s national hero, Sir Edmund Hillary, decided to return to the Himalayas and look for the legendary Yeti, also called the Abominable Snowman.  As he assembled his expeditionary crew, Hillary needed a zoologist who could brave the trek into the mountains.  Then he remembered an American zookeeper who had built up his zoo by traveling to sub-Saharan Africa for animals.

And so Hillary sought out Marlin Perkins, director of Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.  Perkins had expanded the zoo, gaining national attention and appearing on the cover of the 7 July, 1947, issue of Time magazine.  From 1950 to 1957 he was on Chicago television hosting Zoo Parade.  Before making his mark in Chicago, Perkins had served as director of the zoo in Buffalo, New York, where he added a reptile house.

Born in 1905 in Carthage, Missouri, to a local judge and his wife, Perkins loved the outdoors.  Whether as a boy at Missouri’s Wentworth Military Academy or later, Perkins collected reptiles, especially snakes.  He dropped out of the University of Missouri, saying he saw no sense in getting a degree in a subject one loved only to take a job in an office somewhere.  With some biology and Latin under his belt, he went to work at the St. Louis Zoo, trimming hedges and sweeping sidewalks.

Thin and dapper, whether in a dark suit and tie or khakis and a pith helmet, Perkins had prematurely white hair cut short and parted on the right, as well as a pencil mustache like that of a 1930s film star such as Don Ameche or Clark Gable.  From 1963 to 1985, he became known across the country and then around the world through an award-winning half-hour television show, Wild Kingdom, sponsored by a Midwestern insurance company, Mutual of Omaha.  Each week Perkins narrated footage of him in exotic locations documenting equally exotic animals.

Perkins had an easily imitable voice often described as “reedy,” and comedians such as Johnny Carson delighted in perpetuating a myth that Perkins avoided danger, sending his able assistant, Jim Fowler, into harm’s way instead.  “While Jim castrates the wildebeest,” a Perkins imitator would say, “I’ll watch from the jeep.”

In fact, Perkins was no stranger to risk.  As a young man he went into Louisiana swamps to catch snakes.  In middle age he suffered a near-fatal rattlesnake bite, and later, a broken nose and broken ribs from being knocked aside by an elephant.  A crack shot, the only time Perkins used a gun was to shoot a tranquilizer into an animal so he and his team could tag and study it.  Long before those encounters, in April, 1923, he set the tone for his life of intrepid daring when he and an older brother decided to return home to Missouri from a year working odd jobs in California by buying a 1912 Harley-Davidson motorcycle with sidecar and driving it across the Rockies.

When Hillary recruited Perkins, it was summer, and they were walking briskly down a street in Chicago.  Hillary’s plan intrigued Perkins, but Perkins wondered if his age, 55 by the time they set out, would be an obstacle.  Hillary, age 40, tall and square-jawed and personifying “rugged,” observed that Perkins was having no trouble keeping pace with him.

After the expedition, Perkins wrote up his findings for the 1962 Year Book of The World Book Encyclopedia, and in his memoirs, My Wild Kingdom (1982), he included a chapter about searching for Yeti.  World Book’s publishers had underwritten Hillary’s expedition, and the 1962 Year Book included a five-part report compiled by members of the team.  Perkins’ section of the report described their work in autumn, 1960, in Nepal, where Sherpas, their local guides, showed them hairy scalps and large paw prints in the snow, both phenomena attributed to Yeti.

What Perkins found was that the tracks were fox prints enlarged by melting from the sun, and the bristly hairs on alleged scalps were part of the hide of the Tibetan blue bear.  “And the Abominable Snowman?” Perkins asked in conclusion.  “We now are convinced he is a myth,” but as such “he probably will live on among the Sherpas as the legendary figure he has been for centuries.”

Thirty-seven years after Perkins’ adventure, at the eastern end of the Himalayan range, another American explorer heard local accounts of Yeti.  Recalling his time in Putao, in what once was Burma, Alan Rabinowitz wrote in Beyond the Last Village, “One old man told of a hunter who had been attacked by a yeti . . . that ‘rushed down the hillside with fangs bared and hands raised to attack him’.”  It is a scary story, but vague enough to be describing a missing-link Wild Man or simply a bear rearing up and having none of some human blundering into its territory.

In the early fifth century, Augustine wrote about the innate human curiosity for strange creatures in strange lands, and four centuries earlier, Pliny the Elder provided a similar catalogue in his Natural History.  A comparably keen student of human and other nature, Marlin Perkins mused in My Wild Kingdom, “I can fully understand the thinking of those who believe there is still a yeti up there waiting to be discovered.”

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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