Some years ago , there was a wonderful animal show on television called, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. It was hosted by the avuncular and gentlemanly Marlin Perkins. Mr. Perkins was, at one time, the director of the St. Louis Zoo. He was mostly an expert on reptiles, particularly venomous snakes, by which he was bitten at least four times. Mr. Perkins was a stickler for realism. His show was filmed on location and very often his co-stars, Stan Brock and Jim Fowler, would wind up in some hair-raising struggles with wild animals while Mr. Perkins stood in the foreground and reminded the viewer, “If a badger ever tries to chew your pancreas out. . .make sure you have adequate insurance coverage with Mutual of Omaha.”
I vividly remember Jim Fowler and Stan Brock wrestling a 27-foot anaconda in the Amazon once; Fowler’s head buried in the coils and being held underwater, while Jim’s brains were leaking out his ears. Stan Brock was trying desperately to get the snake into a gunny sack. Mr. Perkins calmly provided the narrative, “While Jim struggles to free his head, Stan is on task collecting the specimen into the snake bag.” Jim Fowler was franticly pointing at his head screaming and yelling, to which Perkins wryly retorted, “Jim is getting quite a workout!” It was honestly scary. They finally got the snake into the sack and Jim Fowler was fucked up, out of breath, looking seriously short of brain cells and covered head to toe in snake shit.
Perkins took his viewers all over the world and was one of the first voices to embrace the idea of conservation and the protection of endangered species. He had a particular love of odd animals; civets, mongooses, hyenas and wild dogs of Africa. He loved square-offs between nature’s Davids and Goliaths–the weasel-like mongoose killing the infinitely more frightening king cobra, a scorpion backing up a coyote with a bad-ass tail display, a six-ounce kestrel pounding the holy shit out of a pigeon in flight. Wild Kingdom reflected the realism of nature. No longing shots of doe-eyed baby seals, but the around-the-clock-murder that constitutes the natural world and makes observing its moments of grace such an ephemeral joy.
I learned all manner of weird facts from this show. That many people in India wear masks on the back of their head to stave off tiger attacks. That snakes actually hear with their tongues. That bluefin tuna, depending on water temperature, can be cold-blooded and warm-blooded. That honey badgers are immune to cobra venom. It makes them fall asleep for a minute or two, the where, upon waking up, continues to eat the ass out of the cobra.
As a kid I loved these shows. I also loved drawing fucked-up hybrids of animals–lions with eagle-heads (like griffons), snakes with human heads, two-headed creatures were a favorite, and weird amalgams of cats, dogs and hyenas. I loved hyenas. They were scary-looking bastards, like four-legged vultures in a way, traveling in packs at night with glowing eyes and making other-worldly sounds that sounded like laughter. . .and scaring the shit out of people.
I would draw these creatures and it would make my teachers nuts. “What is that?” they would ask, and I’d tell them they were the devil’s dogs and they would go apoplectic. I would also draw packs of wolverines attacking cities and it made the nuns crazy. These pictures were strangely apocalyptic and they made me laugh. They were so much fun to make, in part because they so disturbed teachers and authority figures. I had many a go-round with the school shrinks and “guidance counselors.” One of them, Brother Leo, told me they were trying to “reach” me. For some reason this bugged the shit out of me and I grabbed my balls and whistled and said, “Reach this.” I was sick of these assholes and their condescension. He threatened to keep my sketchbook full of mutant animals and naked women. I told him that I promised him I would be leaving his office with my sketchbook and made it clear to him he would have to fight me for it. By this time I was six feet tall and an ill-tempered bastard and he thought better of trying to keep my sketchbook.
At a certain point, the people around me began to realize that the sketch book and the drawings were where I went for sanity. It was the only thing that made any sense to me. I thought my teachers and counselors were retards and with few exceptions, I wasn’t wrong.
The truth was I loved drawing animals; real ones, made-up ones. . .it was all the same to me. I still love nature shows. I can burn whole days watching them on Netflix and PBS, the Richard Attenborough ones especially. I never liked the “Crocodile Hunter” guy. He was a pain in the balls. There is a way to film animals without harassing them or fucking up their day and this guy didn’t know it. He constantly had to be wrestling them and working their stick to prove what a brave Aussie scamp he was. He was an annoying asshole and nature finally ripped up his ticket.
That the relatively benign stingray was finally the creature to settle his hash is almost poetic. 999 times out of a thousand this would be an uneventful crossing of paths between man and aquatic beast. But no-o-o-o. . .Crikey has to screw with the stingray and catches a spike in the heart. Nature is the quick and the dead. It’s surprising that it took so long for nature to get this goof.