Suzanne Perkins-Gordon sat in the Buffalo Zoo Reptile House on Wednesday, her first time back since 1944.
“My father and I would go behind the scenes on Sundays, and it would be just the two of us,” Perkins-Gordon reminisced, not far from a Gila monster, king cobra and other enclosed reptiles and amphibians.
“He would lift the opaque cover, and we’d look through the glass, and sometimes he would raise the glass and take a snake out and hand it to me,” she said, quickly adding that the snakes weren’t poisonous.
Perkins-Gordon had a unique view into zoos – her father was Marlin Perkins, later known to millions as the host of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” a weekly show about animals in the wild and in zoos beamed into people’s homes from 1963 to 1985.
But Perkins also had an important local connection. He was the reptile curator and then director of the Buffalo Zoo from 1938 to 1944, nearly 20 years before the white-haired zookeeper and conservationist with the soothing voice became a household presence.
Perkins-Gordon, 79, who moved away from Buffalo at age 7, returned from her Berkeley, Calif., home to help launch the public component of a $2.5 million capital fundraising campaign being announced Thursday to renovate the soon-to-be-renamed Amphibian and Reptile Center.
The infrastructure and exhibits date back to Perkins’ time and need to be updated.
“I think this is such a worthwhile project,” Perkins-Gordon said. “The stewardship that is taking place here is so fantastic. My father would have been so happy to hear about so many of the things that are going on here now.”
Perkins came to Buffalo in September 1938 from the St. Louis Zoo to be the reptile curator. He designed the current Reptile House, which he proclaimed at its June 1942 opening to be “the finest reptile house in America.”
The family lived in an apartment building on Parkside Avenue, near the zoo.
Perkins was appointed director just as the federal Works Progress Administration provided $1.5 million – then a hefty sum – to modernize the zoo. Under his watch, the bird house, now home to the gorillas, the primate house and the former bear exhibits were introduced.
Perkins left Buffalo in May 1944 to head the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
“He leaves our zoo a better place than he found it,” The Buffalo Evening News wrote.
Perkins later returned to the St. Louis Zoo and his native Missouri in 1962 as director, two years after joining Sir Edmund Hillary as the zoologist for the 1960 Himalayan expedition that searched for the legendary Yeti.
In 1963, Perkins began his 22-year run hosting “Wild Kingdom.” He died in 1986, a year after leaving.
Zoo President Donna Fernandes used to watch that show.
“Oh, absolutely I did,” Fernandes said. “And I did get to meet Jim Fowler, who was Marlon Perkins’ sidekick, at zoo conferences in the early ’90s.
“The show was a staple to get exposure to parts of the world that were not in the U.S. For me, it wasn’t just the animals but all the other cultures that would be shown in these faraway places. ‘The World of Disney’ used to also have some great featured films as well, but everybody watched that show.”
The transformation of the zoo under Perkins stood until Fernandes’ arrival. She has led the zoo’s efforts to modernize with new exhibits and other major changes.
“It’s exciting to get her back here,” Fernandes said of Perkins-Gordon. “Marlon Perkins is just so admired in the industry. The top prize in our industry is the Marlin Perkins Award,” she said, referring to an award given out by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Perkins-Gordon’s appearance at the zoo for Thursday’s press event comes as $2 million of the $2.5 million needed for the new Reptile and Amphibian Center has been raised. That includes $500,000 from State Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation; $267,000 from the City of Buffalo for a new roof; and private donations from individuals and corporations.
Zoo officials hope the public can come up with the rest.
The renovations include new heating, ventilation and temperature systems, more thanr 30 naturalistic exhibits, including a new Komodo dragon exhibit, and interactive education elements.
The project could begin in 2017, and once it starts, it’s expected to take about a year to complete.