Marlin Perkins was born on March 28, 1905 in Carthage, Missouri, and attended public school there through eighth grade. In the fall of 1919, he entered Wentworth Military Academy. There Perkins demonstrated his fascination with snakes by keeping blue racer snakes in his room.
Perkins briefly attended the University of Missouri, but quit school to become a laborer at the Saint Louis Zoological Park. It was the start of a brilliant zoological career. He rose through the ranks, becoming the reptile curator in 1928. After being hired as a curator of the Buffalo Zoological Park in Buffalo, New York, Perkins was eventually promoted to director in 1938. He then served as director at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, from 1944 until 1962. During his time at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Perkins joined Sir Edmund Hillary as the zoologist for Hillary's 1960 Himalayan expedition to search for the legendary Yeti.
Perkins was the host of Zoo Parade, a television program that originated from the Lincoln Park Zoo when he was the director there. During a rehearsal of Zoo Parade, he was bitten by a timber rattlesnake, one of several bites from venomous snakes Perkins suffered throughout his career.
As a result of his work on Zoo Parade Perkins was offered the job in 1963 for which most Americans remember him: host of the famed nature show Wild Kingdom. The enormous fame he gained in his television career allowed Perkins to become an advocate for the protection of endangered species, and through Wild Kingdom he gave many Americans their first exposure to the conservation movement.
Perkins retired from active zookeeping in 1970 and from Wild Kingdom in 1985 for health reasons. Perkins remained with the Saint Louis Zoo as Director Emeritus until his death on June 14, 1986, when he died of cancer.
Because Walt Disney had fabricated footage of a mass suicide of lemmings in its film White Wilderness, CBC journalist Bob McKeown asked Marlin Perkins if he had done the same. Perkins, then in his eighties, "firmly asked for the camera to be turned off, then punched a shocked McKeown in the face."
In 1990, Marlin Perkins was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame. A statue of Perkins also stands in Central Park in his hometown of Carthage, Missouri.