© 2021 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Health, Science, Environment

Carol Perkins: Author, wildlife conservationist and widow of legendary zoologist Marlin Perkins

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 27, 2012 - Carol Perkins said her 26 years with renowned zoologist Marlin Perkins was more than a marriage. It was an adventure.

She would often recall in interviews a trip to the Belgian Congo with her then newly minted husband. She awoke one night to find a large lizard under her pillow.

“I started to scream and couldn't stop,” Mrs. Perkins told People magazine in 1982. “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!'"

Mrs. Perkins saw a lot of creatures up close and grew to love them. She became a wildlife conservationist who worked to save endangered animals and a writer who shared her experiences in some of the most remote places in the world.

Carol Perkins died Saturday (Oct. 20, 2012) at her home in Clayton. She was 95.

Jeffrey Bonner, president and CEO of the St. Louis Zoo, said Mrs. Perkins and her late husband worked to educate everyone about the importance of preserving animals for future generations.

“(They) were a great voice for conservation and ecology and carried that message across the globe,” Bonner said.

A star is born

Mrs. Perkins traveled with her husband to the farthest corners of the world.

Marlin Perkins wrote in his autobiography, My Wild Kingdom: “It was always much more fun when she went along.”

She led dozens of expeditions in Africa, Australia, Nepal and India, including its least populous state, Sikkim, in the Himalayans.

Mrs. Perkins became a recognized expert on conservation and their explorations were fodder for her lectures, books and television.

She never appeared on her husband’s long-running television show, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, but she became a local TV celebrity.

For five years during the ‘70s, she appeared weekly with Dick Ford on KSDK-TV news to talk about the latest in conservation efforts: the need to recycle; why endangered species needed federal protection or the importance of preserving natural habitats like the Alaskan wetlands.

A hit on TV, she received a lot of fan mail. One woman wrote asking what an animal-lover could do about the rabbits feasting on her nasturtiums. Mrs. Perkins’ cheerful advice: plant more flowers. The fan later wrote that she had taken Mrs. Perkins’ advice and all was well, even though the increased flower supply had attracted five more rabbits.

Mrs. Perkins wrote I Saw You From Afar, the story of a visit to the Bushman of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa; The Sound of Boomerangs Returning, about the nomadic Aborigines of northwest Australia and The Shattered Skull: A Safari to Man’s Past, the story of Louis and Mary Leakey’s search for the origins of man in Africa.

One book was set in St. Louis: Little Pierre, the story of the star of the popular Saint Louis Zoo chimpanzee show.

Changing hearts and minds

Mrs. Perkins became a sought-after conservation speaker and lectured across the country.

After recovering from malignant melanoma in 1974, she and her husband began speaking at fundraisers for cancer research. She served on the national board of the American Cancer Society for more than a decade.

She helped organize two national symposiums, held in Washington, on the status of North American endangered and threatened wildlife. The conferences brought together for the first time the nation’s leading conservationists and wildlife biologists.

In 1971, Mrs. Perkins and her husband worked with Washington University to found the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka. The center is the reason that red wolves and Mexican gray wolves are living free in the wild again, no longer facing extinction.

“She led a wonderfully full life filled with passion to change the hearts and minds of people about wildlife and their value to our planet,” said Virginia Busch, executive director of the Endangered Wolf Center.

Mrs. Perkins founded and served as chair of the St. Louis chapter of the Explorers Club, which promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea and air.

In 1975, Mrs. Perkins helped establish the Open Door Animal Sanctuary, a no-kill shelter for dogs and cats in House Springs.

More intense

Carole Morse was born on May 25, 1917 in St. Paul, Minn., the daughter of Alice Von Deyn Morse and Frederick Jacob Morse. She graduated from the University of Minnesota and taught kindergarten for a year before marrying John Cotsworth. They divorced in 1959.

She married Richard Marlin Perkins in 1960 in Chicago, where he was director of the Lincoln Park Zoo. They moved to St. Louis two years later, when he returned to lead the St. Louis Zoo, where he had first been hired as a groundskeeper in 1926.

Her husband’s death in 1986 did not slow Mrs. Perkins’ conservation effort.

“It became more intense,” Garrick said.

In 1996, Mrs. Perkins went back to the place in Kenya where her friend, Joy Adamson, the author of Born Free, had been murdered 16 years earlier. She wrote of the trip: “I went back to remember that day when we were so happy and everyone was still alive.”

In addition to her daughter, Marguerite (Robert) Garrick of Clayton, Mrs. Perkins’ survivors include another daughter, Alice (Ren) Goltra of Lake Forest, Ill. and a son, Fred Cotsworth of Clayton; a stepdaughter, Suzanne Perkins of Berkeley, Calif., seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

The family held a private funeral service. A public memorial service will be next year in Marlin Perkins’ hometown of Carthage, Mo., where Mrs. Perkins will be buried next to her husband.

Memorial gifts may be made to Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute, One Government Drive, St. Louis, MO 63110; the Endangered Wolf Center, P.O. Box 760. Eureka, MO 63025, or Open Door Animal Sanctuary, P.O. Box 870, House Springs, MO 63051.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.