Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Friday, February 13, 2009

When Forest Park Zoo Animals Attack, Part 2

Jiggs’ Fatal Dash For Freedom

Photo: Jiggs grasps a stick at the Springfield Science Museum. On April 21, 1967, he brandished a bar in that same paw--one he had ripped out of his cage--and engaged in a duel with bars in the neighboring enclosure. A few hours later he bent another bar, squeezed through, and off he went into Forest Park.

“Jiggs’ Fatal Dash For Freedom.” That was the Springfield Daily News headline on April 23, 1967, right under the top header “Chimp Goes Ape.”

In When Zoo Animals Attack Part 1, Snowball the polar bear’s trials and tribulations were reported, including a gunshot wound to her head when she clamped her teeth down on a zoogoer’s arm in April of 1972.

April was also the cruelest month for Jiggs, who came to the Forest Park Zoo in 1966 at age 14 with his 19-year-old mate, Nancy, from Washington, DC’s National Zoo.

Both Snowball and Jiggs are now permanent residents of the Springfield Science Museum. Snowball guards the museum shop, while Jiggs is part of the African Hall exhibit.

The story of Jiggs' death in a hail of gunfire is not one of zoo staff incompetence or trigger-happy police officers, as many people think. It’s the story of a frustrated father who just wanted to see his son, Jiggsy (pictured below in the winter of 1969-70).

Photo: Steve Jeannotte

APRIL 1967

Nancy gave birth to a male on April 17, 1967, and she shielded him from everyone, especially Jiggs. So Jiggs became increasingly restless, and four nights later he went berserk, tearing out four bars between his family’s cage and the lions' cage. Head zookeeper Gene Barr discovered the damage the next morning, and fortunately the lions (pictured below) hadn’t torn Jiggs’ family to bits.

Photos: Steve Jeannotte

Jiggs had calmed down enough for Barr to enter the cage, and even let the zookeeper shake hands with him. However, Jiggs, armed with one of the loose bars, opened the window leading to the outside exercise portion of the outdoor cage (the cage pictured to the right of the entrance below) and began hitting the bars outside with his weapon, working himself into a frenzy again.

It was decided that later that night Jiggs and Nancy would board a plane back to Washington, while a better, stronger cage was built in the Forest Park Zoo, and that the baby would be shipped to Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo, which was better prepared to care for a newborn. The plan was to return the tiny chimp to Forest Park at a later date.

On Friday, April 21, at 8:30 p.m. Jiggs was shot with a tranquilizer dart, but it had no effect. In fact, it enraged him. With three times the strength of a human, he ripped out the one-inch-thick bar, squeezed through a five-inch gap in the cage, and disappeared into the night.

Photo: Frank Usin was on a routine assignment for the Springfield Union to take pictures of the chimp family when all hell broke loose. He snapped a shot (click to enlarge) of the cage after Jiggs bent a bar and escaped.

Jiggs was sighted in the Trafton Road area, and an alarmed woman later reported a “rather small man with a frightening beard” hanging out on her back porch. Then he came back to the park and tackled a man who was digging for night crawlers on the baseball fields.

Parks Superintendent Baldwin Lee and Police Sergeant Leonard Rook, along with 10 Springfield police officers, were on the hunt for Jiggs when Frank Usin, a photographer for the Springfield Union newspaper, saw the chimp in his headlights near his old cage. He followed the ape in his car toward the swimming pool area. “He never liked cameras, and I felt that if I popped a flashbulb in his eyes he’d go for me,” said Usin.

By then Lee and the police converged on Jiggs with shoot-to-kill orders because he posed a danger to the public and was heading in the direction of Sumner Avenue after he “menaced children and other visitors in the park,” according to the Springfield Union article. Lee shot at Jiggs with a rifle, and the police also opened fire, fatally wounding the animal.

Of course, throughout my childhood, the stories about the shooting tended to inflate the number of bullets it took to bring Jiggs down. First it was nine. Then twelve. Then twenty. How many was it? News reports at the time didn’t have an official count, but I’ll give you an estimate: a shitload!

“Sergeant Rook shot five times,” said Usin. “It appeared that the area was swarming with police, and all were shooting at Jiggs.” Christ, Jiggs took more bullets than fucking King Kong!

However, no one called their actions into question. “Public safety comes first,” commented Dr. Theodore Reed, director of the National Zoo.

Blogger Paul Brown has an interesting interview with Baldwin Lee about the incident and a narrative about the fate of the Forest Park Zoo. A massive expansion was under consideration at the time of Jiggs’ death, but it would have cost up to $3 million. Walter Stone, who designed the Franklin Park Zoo, was commissioned to submit a design. Lee interviewed possible zoo directors, traveling as far as Mexico. But in the end the city decided not to charge an admission for the zoo, which doomed the plans, because working within a Parks and Recreation Department budget just couldn’t cut it. An editorial in the Daily News questioned the capability of the zoo to safely house chimps, wondering if it “overextended itself” with its acquisition.

Over the next decade there was even further outcry over the conditions of Snowball the polar bear and Morganetta the elephant, who was tethered to a heavy cement block by a short chain. The lions and the Tech tiger (Technical High School’s mascot) paced endlessly in their cramped cages in the odiferous monkey house. Indeed, the smell in the building used to hit us like a ton of bricks as soon as we opened the doors. But my brother and I used to brave the stink to toss Necco wafers and Smarties to the monkeys—yes, unbelievably, they let us feed them candy. (I can recall my dad steering us away from the wanking monkey whenever his masturbation matinee commenced for the kiddies.)

Photo: Boy did this guy love candy.

The monkeys also had a habit of throwing their scat around, so you had to be on your toes, especially after workers had hosed down the cages, because the monkeys enjoyed splashing visitors by slapping the puddles near the bars.

Photo: Steve Jeannotte

Still, we were always delighted to visit the monkey house (pictured below when it first opened), and our favorite attraction was Nancy and her son Jiggsy. We had to be careful not to get too close, because Jiggsy was known to fill up his cheeks and spray water on his admirers—and climb to the top of the cage to urinate on them.

In 1979, when Snowball died and Morganetta was transferred to the Los Angeles Zoo, there wasn’t much of a menagerie left in Forest Park, and it was getting even smaller. People were infuriated by reports of packs of neighborhood dogs periodically killing deer in the ravine, and tuberculosis outbreak among zoo animals in the early 1970s had given zoo opponents even more ammunition to demand that its inhabitants be shipped out. The lion couple, Tillie and Harry, had a couple of cubs (pictured below) in 1969, and they were transferred to another zoo.

Photo: Steve Jeannotte

By the end of the decade, Nancy, Jiggsy, the black bears, the lions, the tiger (pictured below enjoying raw steak), all the monkeys, the leopard, the water buffalo (also pictured below), and the camel were long gone. (Was there any truth to the rumor that the kangaroo was killed when lightning struck the flagpole next to its cage? Who knows?) A modest Kiddieland Zoo was set up in an old playground, across the road from the present-day Forest Park Zoo.

Above photos: Steve Jeannotte

Did the dream of a world-class zoo die with Jiggs? It’s hard to say. The incident certainly didn’t do the expansion proposal any good. However, it was ultimately the decision not to charge visitors a fee that put the kibosh on the plan, which is ironic because now there is a charge to enter Forest Park and a separate admission for the zoo.

My three-year-old son enjoys the Forest Park Zoo and the Springfield Science Museum, and when he’s old enough, I’ll tell him the gory details of the Snowball and Jiggs incidents, stories that are part of Springfield lore. The taxidermist did an excellent job of covering up the bullet holes on Jiggs, turning him from a slice of Swiss cheese back into a chimp again. He even put a smile on Jiggs, transforming a death grimace into a grin.

Come to think of it, maybe Jiggs was smiling when he was cut down. I can see it now, in slow motion, the chimp convulsing and blood spurting from every shot, like a scene from a Sam Peckinpah film. But he is happy, his face bright with a crazed sneer-smirk, because he isn’t behind bars any more, and, as he takes his last breaths, knows that he will never be again.

As the bullets rained, said photographer Fred Usin, “his skin seemed like concrete. Even though he finally lost, he died triumphantly, free from his cage.”

Read When Forest Park Zoo Animals Attack, Part 3!


Russ Birch said...

Thanks so much for all of this. I was there during the early 60's as a young child and remember the animals, cages and employees very well. Your posts and pictures brought me MUCH enjoyment. Thanks. Russ Birch, originally from Longmeadow.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the pictures, I can still hear the lions roar at night. I always worried about the animals pacing in the cages and wanted them free.

Anonymous said...

Best memories ever! I have told the stories of Jiggs and Snowball to my own children and now with my grandchildren when we visit the museum. Forest Park was so special. Thanks so much for bringing it back to life.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, what a great memory. I remember getting "rained on" at the monkey house. Great times going there with my grandmother.

Anonymous said...

thanks for this, its too bad that he was put so far from his family, and that the person firing the so called tranquilizer, would have used the right amount of medicine to put him down. i love animals, and its just another sad story of human incompetance and our beloved animals pay for this.

Anonymous said...

love your site. the pics & stories were just what i was looking for to backup my own memories from the the zoo, including the monkey house, morganetta, etc. thank you!

Running Hard Out Of Muskrat Flats said...

Nice one. Thanks for the props and the link

Anonymous said...

Sounds like we lived in the same neighborhood about the same time. Me and the guys i hug out with have been to every place you have been taking about. You have deffinately brought back alot of memories. Remember the fireworks at Forest Park?

Hell's Acres said...

I saw the fireworks at Forest Park once, but my family usually watched the Blunt Park fireworks from the steps of the Mutual of Omaha insurance building on the corner of Bay Street and Roosevelt Ave.

jen mcnary said...

Was thinking about Jiggsy and Nancy today, and googled them. Great to read this! Visits to Forest Park Zoo were a HUGE part of my childhood. I too remember feeding Nancy and Jiggsy candy and avoiding the showers. Clearly, our nation's zoos have come a long way in the treatment of animals and of design of habitats.

Hell's Acres said...

Thanks for reading, Jen. From what I hear, there are plans to convert the old monkey house into a Forest Park museum. It would be great to go in the building again, sans the smell.

Prof. J. Berger, Springfield College said...

Although Jiggs' stuffed skin is in the museum, his skeleton resides in an anatomy lab at Springfield College.

Hell's Acres said...

I had no idea that his bones were at Springfield College. Your institution should give him an honorary degree!

Anonymous said...

Some friends of mine were wrestling near the bathrooms across the street from the monkey house when Jiggs escaped. They saw a shadow of what they thought was a small man dragging an iron bar. I grew up on Draper St., and could hear the lions every summer day around 2 PM as feeding time was 3 PM.

Hell's Acres said...

Wow, they were dangerously close to a pissed off chimp with a weapon! There aren't many firsthand accounts.