Buffalo in the ’40s: The Zoo’s Marlin Perkins and Eddie the Chimp

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

As Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom” was on the air from 1963 to 1985, Buffalonians were always quick to claim the host Marlin Perkins as one of our own.

Buffalo News archives

America’s best-known animal lover in the TV age, Perkins grew and expanded the Buffalo Zoo in the years he was curator and then director in the 1930s and 1940s.

Perkins is pictured in 1944 as he was leaving for a new post in Chicago, accepting a suitcase from Eddie the Chimp.

For as famous as Perkins was around the country, he could barely compete with the sensation he created at the Buffalo Zoo.

Eddie was the Buffalo Zoo’s first chimpanzee when he arrived from Africa in 1940. Eddie was friendly and willing to take direction, and Perkins and staff had soon taught Eddie to dance and to shave his keeper — with a straight razor. It was clear that Eddie loved the limelight, and would seemingly do anything for applause. Keepers dressed him in a Marine uniform and the chimp raised money for the USO during World War II.

But soon after Eddie became an adult — when he was 5 or 6 years old — Eddie stopped wanting to perform. One handler said it was pretty clear that Eddie thought of himself as more human than chimp. He never associated with the other chimps and never mated.

By the early 1950s, Eddie was clearly angry. The banana peels he’d fling at passersby were the least offensive organic matter one might get pelted with.

In the late 1950s, after Eddie spat at and threw dung at a group of passing VIPs, glass was placed between Eddie and zoo visitors and the barrier seemed to suit him just fine.

For more than 30 years, visitors to the zoo didn’t know what they might get from Eddie. Maybe a dance, reminiscent of the way he was in the 1940s … or maybe the show looked more like something from a bawdy boys high school locker room.

That was part of Eddie’s somewhat sad draw though — never knowing what you might see.

At the age of 47, Eddie the Chimp was the oldest resident at the Buffalo Zoo when he was euthanized after suffering a stroke in 1985. Perkins died the next year.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. The operator of Buffalo Stories Tours writes about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo special at blog.buffalostories.com and daily at buffalonews.com/history. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and spent 20 years working in Buffalo radio and TV, climbing his way to news director at WBEN Radio. Since then, he's been an adjunct professor and produced PBS documentaries. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.