“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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!