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.”

The Witness & Wisdom of C. S. Lewis

The next issue of the St. Austin Review (May/June) is winging its way to the printer. The theme is “The Witness and Wisdom of C. S. Lewis”. Highlights:

Thomas Storck learns “Lessons from C. S. Lewis on Rationalism, Romanticism and Christendom”, applying those lessons to “Identity Politics, Western Culture, and Christian Faith”.

Aaron Urbanczyk conducts “An Experiment” on “C. S. Lewis and Literary Theory”.

Charlotte Ostermann sees “The Veiled Self” in C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.

Alex Markos ponders “Me, Myself, and the Cosmos” in relation to “C. S. Lewis and Human Autonomy”.

Jonathan Thorndike meets “Strangers in a Strange Land” in his discussion of “Horace Miner, C. S. Lewis and the Art of Satire”.

David Rozema admires “The American Inkling” in “Clyde S. Kilby and the Well of Wonder”.

Kevin O’ Brien dramatizes “Friendship and Conversion” in Tolkien and Lewis.

John Beaumont considers “C. S. Lewis, Manuel Alfonseca and the Trilemma”.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker goes with C. S. Lewis into “The Inner Ring”.

Fr. Benedict Kiely dwells on “Walsingham and the Love of God”.

Donald DeMarco finds “Echoes and Encores” in poetry and metaphysics.

Susan Treacy muses on “Epic Poetry and Opera”.

K. V. Turley finds “Curses and Magic in Night of the Demon”.

Kenneth Colston reviews Calm in Chaos: Essays for Anxious Times by Fr. George William Rutler.

Brian Welter reviews Cathedrals of Britain: North of England and Scotland by Bernadette Fallon.

Melvin S. Arrington, Jr. reviews Two Wings: Integrating Faith and Reason by Clayton and Kries.

Donna Spivey Ellington reviews The Abolition of Woman: How Radical Feminism is Betraying Women.

Marie Dudzik reviews Humility Rules: Saint Benedict’s 12-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem.

Roy Schoeman reviews The Conversion of Edith Stein.

Stephen Tomlinson reviews The Lion in the Wasteland: Fearsome Redemption in the Work of C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and T. S. Eliot.

Plus new poetry by N. S. Boone, Chad Chisholm, David Lyle Jeffrey, Brendan D. King and Denise Sobilo.

Be a Wise Man. Follow the StAR.

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Speaking at a Chivalry Conference

Is the age of chivalry dead and buried? If so, is it in need of resurrection? These questions will form the focus of a conference in New Jersey on May 18 at which I’ll be speaking, along with other guest speakers. If you live in the area, or even if you don’t, please consider attending. Here’s the link:

Be Where You Are

This old dictum can be deceptively simple, rather like “Home is where the heart is.”

When I first considered becoming Catholic in 1984, I went to the local church, only a block or two from my apartment in New Orleans, and talked to a very young priest, whom I’ll call Father Francis. He was fresh out of seminary in Ireland. In RCIA, I wondered what became of him. When I asked about him, the deacon in charge of RCIA told me that Fr. Francis was homesick for Ireland and was suffering from depression. He stayed in the rectory a good deal.

Well-meaning people tried to introduce him to New Orleans culture, but the attempt was a failure. He just didn’t want to be there. One of the parishioners said, “We’re just not good enough for him, I guess, not white enough, maybe.” Sympathy morphed into resentment.

Finally, one day, he was over it. “You have to be where you are,” he said, as though he’d stumbled on a discovery—and maybe he had. If you are where you are, you won’t understand the difficulty of not being where you are. It’s not a matter of geography. It’s a matter of being. There are all sorts of accoutrements to go with that being—being where, being with whom ….

Having lived all over the place when I was a child (17 school changes in 12 years), and having attached and detached from numerous “fathers” (I had a very romantic mother), I learned very early on that it’s not a matter of where you are, or with whom—all that matters is how you are. If you are self-alienated (another term for this condition), you can project that discontent in any direction you want, and change locations/mates/jobs/situations, and be repeatedly surprised by the smallness of the improvement you’re able to make, even with the most radical changes. Until finally, one day, you may discover that it’s not a matter of where you are. It’s only how you are that counts. And that how comes from the inside out, not from the outside in.

This discovery may seem unimportant. But that’s where the deception lies. The significance of young Fr. Francis’ discovery can’t be overestimated, for, consciously or not, he had decided: “I shall not want.” Even if he forgets that decision, even if he resumes emotional dependence on the world around him, a reference point is made. And the soul remembers what we do not. Wherever he is for the rest of his days, whatever the conditions of his life, he has chosen the better part and his cup runneth over.