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Where’s Marlin Perkins?

The back alley reminds me of Marlin Perkins. From 1963 to 1985, Perkins hosted Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with his trusty and faithful sidekick Jim Fowler. While Perkins remained in the studio, Jim often wrangled the wildlife, or so it seemed.

Perkins was not a professional in the sense we know it today. He went to the University of Missouri for a brief period but quit to work at the St. Louis Zoo in 1923. He never earned a degree. He worked his way up to become the head of the reptile department in 1928. From there, he moved to the Buffalo, NY, Zoo as curator. In 1938, he assumed the director’s position. He directed the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago from 1944 until 1962, when he returned to direct the St. Louis Zoo, a position he kept until 1970.

Perkins took on the duties of hosting Wild Kingdom in 1963. From then until 1971, he was a Sunday evening fixture on the Dobson television. He traipsed the world, narrating the lives of creatures large and small with his sonorous Missouri twang. His was personality and a voice you could trust. If he was making things up about Lapland reindeer, right whales, or Tasmanian devils, no one would have suspected. When the show went prime time in 1971, he stayed with the program until 1985. He died at the age of 86 from cancer in 1986.

Every time I go into the backyard, I think of Perkins. The alley is so filled with wildlife that we sometimes don’t get to sleep at night. Every rustle and swish in the leaves leads to our two dogs, Sadie and Molly, rocketing off the bed, down the hall, through the doggie door, and out to the back fence where they bark at opossums, raccoons, ground hogs, and even a red fox.

Yes, that’s right, the dogs are as ill-mannered and ill-trained as their owners.

Allegedly, the fox is an apex predator, leading me to think it would keep the other animals at bay. As far as I can see, the fox shows an indifference to the other animals. According to the Humane Society of the United States, foxes prey on pets and animals smaller than themselves. In the city, many scavenge. They eat out of the garbage and stick with small fry—snakes, toads, and mice.

My fox must be a scavenger and without a taste for animalis domesticus. So, the wildlife gets a pass and it thrives.

My neighbor to the north has a groundhog burrow in his yard. These creatures eat just about anything green. They chew through gardens and strawberry patches. We don’t ever see them doing it, though they are daylight animals, getting most of their eating and digging done during the day. Whenever I see them, they are just standing or laying around in the sun. I’m glad they find home so close to my home, except that those little fuckers will stand at the entrance to their burrow with amused looks on their faces, driving the dogs absolutely, foaming-at-the-mouth mad.

They also take time out of their busy sleeping schedules to stand at their burrows in the night. If the dogs aren’t around, they give a low squeal, a sort of dull whistle. The dogs shoot out of the house and up to the corner of the yard nearest the burrow.

While I consider dogs sly, intelligent creatures, the groundhog renders them completely reactive. They are like rats pushing the red button in the cocaine experiment long after the cocaine is gone. They bark and bark, and would barking themselves hoarse if it wasn’t for Virginia or me getting out of bed and shouting at them that they can have a treat if they just give it up, for God’s sake. We have neighbors to think about.

The opossums are a lot duller than the groundhogs. They have a sort of primordial look to them, their tooth-lined snoots topped with a button nose and black eyes. They are omnivorous, eating anything they can get their noses into. They really are fine at pest control, eating snakes, lizards, slugs, mice, and rats.

But they don’t display much sense for a marsupial that once lived side-by-side with dinosaurs and has survived long after placental animals took over six of the seven continents. They come through the fence into the yard and they make a noise while they do. It would be like me crawling into a cage of hungry lions and announcing my presence with a gong. The dogs get them, shake them, tear at them. Of course, they play dead, which throws the dogs off. The dogs like things that struggle when the dogs terrorize the lower orders.

Despite the possum’s guise of death, the dogs hover around what they think they’ve killed, taking it up and shaking it more, which, of course, induces the possum to play dead some more. This goes on, until the possum, not being able to stand the violent agitation anymore, decides to stand its ground–a fatal decision. The dogs are quick and the marsupial slow. If it’s lucky, the possum will back itself into a hole in the terrace wall, where it growls and hisses and drives the dogs even wilder.

More than once, I had to intervene. I’ve picked their dead-playing carcasses up by the tail and pitched them over the fence. But they only come back. Once in a while, the dogs kill them, which puzzles the dogs from what I can tell. It’s not like dogs raised on kibble and discarded fast food along the street are going to eat the possum. They just stare at their once fun mate and seem sad that they won’t have that possum to kick around anymore.

Here’s the thing: Possums are nomadic. This means that the one that learned the tough lesson of coming in through the fence usually moves on in just a couple of days. Other, unaware cousins take their place, and the backyard drama begins again.

Raccoons are another matter. They are stealthier and a lot subtler than the possum and the groundhog. They sneak. They creep. They stalk. They almost never disturb the dogs, who have preternatural hearing ability. They commence their labors in the dead of night.

Most interested in the neighbor’s compost heap, they are wily enough to get past the chicken wire. When they get in, they lose all sense of propriety and snuffle, sneeze, and rummage. This, of course, gets the dogs involved and one of us out of bed, begging them to leave the damn raccoon alone and get in the house before the neighbors complain.

It’s the middle of the afternoon on a hot summer day. I just walked up in the alley to put our own compost in the pile. The groundhog watched my every move, sitting on its haunches with its hands crossed on its chest. It tried to look uninterested but I knew it was baiting me, as it does the dogs. Bastard, I thought.

The alley is a lively place, filled with wildlife in the middle of the city. Wouldn’t it have been cool to have Perkins and Jim with their film crew in the alley last night? I saw the fox about sunset. The dogs were up and barking at the raccoon in the middle of the night. The possum lumbered through there, I’m sure, as it does just about every night. What kind of spin would Marlin put on what the film crew captured there? Would he have sent Jim out to wrangle the raccoons or capture a possum? What would they have told us about the secretive life of the red fox?

The alley has everything to make an interesting episode of Wild Kingdom—relationships between animals and between them and their environment, sex (because I’m just certain that groundhogs and possums do not spontaneously regenerate), intrigue, violence, and death. It’s an intriguing story, one just perfect for Marlin Perkins had he stayed a little closer to home.

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