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

Monday, February 9, 2009

When Zoo Animals Attack, Part 1

The Springfield Science Museum’s Notorious Duo


Snowball the polar bear and Jiggs the chimp are, of course, completely different species, but they have four traits in common. They:

  • are former Forest Park Zoo residents.
  • both gained notoriety by attacking people and then getting shot by the Springfield Police.
  • Are forever young: stuffed and mounted after their deaths and displayed in the Springfield Science Museum.

My three-year-old son used to be afraid of Snowball. It must have been the polar bear’s size and sharp claws that intimidated him, because noticeably absent in this museum exhibit are the critter’s teeth, which brought her some infamy in 1972 when she sank them into a teenage girl who was dumb enough to stick her arm in her cage at Springfield’s Forest Park Zoo.

Snowball, a resident at the Springfield Science Museum for the past 30 years, died in 1979 and was posed in what was supposed to be a non-menacing stance by former museum director Glen Ives, who did the taxidermy work. Ives intentionally stuffed Snowball with her mouth closed to make her look less threatening to children, but you can’t ignore those claws. Damn: a swipe from her paw back in the day would have definitely taken your face off.

“Don’t worry. She doesn’t move,” I explained to my boy. Nonetheless, on his first few visits to the museum, didn’t want to get too close to the polar bear. But now he seems to realize that Snowball isn’t a threat, so he walks right up to the polar bear’s class enclosure. Good thing he had never heard Snowball’s roar, and that he’s oblivious to Snowball’s violent past.

I’m just kidding. Snowball was actually a big pussycat.

Snowball (pictured living, below) was an adorable 25-pound ball of white fur when she arrived at the zoo in 1951 as a three-month old. Air Force Captain William. McGeary had traded a box of fish hooks to an Eskimo for the orphaned cub, and he persuaded a pilot to board an additional “passenger” to a flight to Westover from Goose Air Base, Labrador. McGeary wanted donate to donate Snowball to the Forest Park Zoo, and Parks Superintendent, Theodor Geisel, the father of the children’s author Dr. Suess liked the idea of adding such an exotic addition to the zoo’s growing menagerie.

She was a popular attraction, but many zoo-goers complained about her welfare, as well as Morganetta the elephant's cramped conditions. Snowball seemed quite vigorous and healthy in the winter, lunging and roaring at anyone who got too close to her cage. But in the summer she was pretty lethargic, hanging out in an oversized concrete tub fed with a hose. The outdoor part of her cage was about half the size of my old apartment in the North End of Boston, and that was pretty damn small. And her indoor digs were even tinier. “Poor Snowball,” I used to say as I watched her through the chain link cage, from which clung clumps of white fur in the summer. I assume she used to rub against the cage when she was molting in the heat. Poor Snowball, who heard the occasional cries of the peacocks from the nearby aviary, but never had the opportunity to display her predatory nature, until. . .

APRIL 17, 1972

Looks cuddly, doesn’t she? One 16-year-old visitor was so enamored with Snowball that she stepped over the short outer rail fence and walked up to the polar bear’s cage, and stuck her arm inside. Snowball chomped down on her arm and wouldn’t let go, until a Springfield Police officer put a .38 caliber slug in her head.

Needless to say, Snowball’s fate dominated the news and our conversations for days. The Snowball drama was the talk of Springfield. The bear, under anesthesia, was in danger of dying. Removing the bullet was deemed to risky, so a vet just stitched up the wound, saying there was an 80-percent chance that Snowball would keep her vision in her right eye. She didn’t. But the outpouring of public concern, including a slew of get-well cards, amazed zoo officials.

Photo: Edward G. Sawyer Jr.

Oh yeah, the chick. I won’t give her last name, but the Westfield resident thought that the bear looked liked an “overstuffed toy”—albeit a 600-pound one—and couldn’t resist trying to pet it. Despite the warning signs, Jody said that she was sure that the animal would respond to affection. The girl, who had even considered a career as a veterinarian (at least up to that day) received 33 stitches and a fractured forearm.

The rumor was that she was tripping on acid, but there was nothing in the Springfield Daily News articles that indicated she was high on anything. I guess the LSD story kind of fit in with the urban legend of the hippie girl/animal lover who is so stoned that she thinks she can pet a polar bear, and then goes on the ultimate bad trip. “Wow, pain is such a rush, man,” she says as the cop shoots the bear. “Ow, what a bummer.”

Photo: Robert Giustina

Anyway, there was more public concern about the condition of Snowball than of Jody’s recovery, but the newspaper did its duty by interviewing the girl, who broke into tears when she saw the TV news report of the story. “I knew it was a stupid thing to have done,” she said, “and I feel bad that the polar bear was shot. It upsets me very much.”

Hundreds of people greeted Snowball when she was allowed to have her first visitors four days later. A group called the Friends of Snowball formed and lobbied for a bigger and better cage, but I don’t recall her living conditions getting any better. For a while you could see a blood red near her eye, and everyone thought it was the bullet hole, but apparently the stain was from a tear duct that leaked blood.

Snowball lived another seven years and died of natural causes. The same couldn’t be said for Jiggs the Chimp. In April of 1967, he bent the bars of his cage, squeezed out, and slipped away in the night. But he died of “lead poising” a few hours after his escape—in a blaze of gunfire from the Springfield Police.

Stay tuned for Jiggs’ fatal dash for freedom in When Zoo Animals Attack, Part 2.


Anonymous said...

Ooooh, Snowball was my favorite critter at the Forest Park Zoo when I was growing up. That chick was an idiot for sticking her arm in there and deserved a chomp from Snowball. There was a reason for bars. Yep, the living conditions for Snowball were atrocious compared to today's zoo facilities across the country. Poor Snowball.

Anonymous said...

I remember going to the zoo many times to see Snowball and to visit the monkey house. I was always under the impression that Snowball was killed when she was shot, I'm glad to hear that she survived and eventually died of natural causes.

Hell's Acres said...

More on Snowball in this blog coming in March!

SJ Wolfe said...

The girl was drunk and had been egged on by my cousin Beth (no last name)who was also drunk, to pet the bear. Beth didn't suffer and although she was the instigator, my aunt always maintained that Jody had been the one to start the incident.

Hell's Acres said...

Hi SJ,

Normally, a "journalist" wouldn't print such hearsay. But since I appreciate all points of view that would shed light on the incident (and the motivation behind sticking one's hand into a polar bear cage), and I doubt that Jody would track me down and sue my ass (especially since I didn't include her last name), I've published your comment!

What was Beth's reaction to the whole incident?