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!

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.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Fear and Loathing on the Monkey Trail, Part 2

Photo: the Monkey Trail is now blocked by a fence! WTF?

Kids being kids: We loved riding our bikes on the Monkey Trail, the wooded lot between Donbray Road and Lumae Street in Sixteen Acres. Oh, the thrill of pedaling as fast as you can down Donbray Road, taking a hairpin turn on the right and flying down the dirt path to the other side. An innocent activity, right? Sure, there was the time we almost got our asses kicked on the Monkey Trail, but we survived.

“Adults” being kids: However, in this blog entry I feel compelled to tell you something I had left out of Fear and Loathing on the Monkey Trail, Part 1. I have to write about the other way we rode through the Monkey Trail. Years after we blazed our way across the trail on bikes, we decided to see what it was like to drive a car all the way through this patch of woods, from Donbray to Lumae. At first glance, you wouldn’t even think it was possible to negotiate the narrow pathway with a car. Never mind the plaguing question: why would anyone want to do it?

The answer isn’t complex. It’s similar to President Clinton’s reasoning behind getting blowjobs from Monica Lewinsky: because we could.


Sometime in the early 1980s driving a car through the Monkey Trail became something of a ritual for us, like taking the Fairlawn Cruise. This was especially fun during a night of partying, particularly if we happened to bring someone who had never been on the path. We’d take the Monkey Trail virgin for a ride down Donbray, and suddenly bang a right turn and blaze through the woods on a bumpy ride to Lumae. Rocks slapping the undercarriage of the car, leaves brushing the windows. Doing the Monkey Trail: what a rush.

“Jesus Christ, what the fuck are you doing?” the freaked out person would always say.

“Initiating your ass,” we’d reply. “Congratulations, you made it through the Monkey Trail.”

“Jesus Christ!” he’d repeat. That was the typical reaction.

I have long forgotten which one of us came up with the idea of driving through the Monkey Trail. Boredom might have had more that a little to do with it. (Ya think?) I remember we said something about having a convenient escape route if we were ever chased by the cops in our neighborhood. Just fly down Fairlawn, take a left on Fenway, swing around Martel Road, take a left on Donbray, and then, whoosh, through the Monkey Trail, leaving the police wondering where the hell you went.

Photo: Click to enlarge.

So, what is the purpose of this blog entry? To point out that it took us a while to grow up? No. I’m getting to the point.

I went out to take a couple of photos of the Monkey Trail the other day for the blog. I didn’t plan to drive through—there was too much snow on the ground. I wouldn’t want to have to explain a tow truck driver how I got stuck in the Monkey Trail. “Duh, my GPS told me to take a right here.” Nope, I just wanted to snap some pictures.

I drove down Lumae, stopped, and pointed my camera. “Damn, look how overgrown the Monkey Trail is,” I thought. “No one has driven through there in an awfully long time. You can’t even get a bike through there now. I guess no one goes on the Monkey Trail anymore.”

Then I drove down Donbray to take a photo of the other side. And what did I see? A big stockade fence blocking the trail.


Some questions came to mind, other than WHAT THE FUCK? Did a neighbor buy the property and annex it to his yard? Did the city or an abutter put up the fence after people began dumping yard waste and appliances in there? Then the dreaded question popped into my head: was it jerks like us DRIVING THROUGH the Monkey Trail that compelled people to seal it forever? I don’t know. I doubt it. We didn’t perform the act all that much, and I doubt that many others (if anyone at all) did.

What a bummer. Now no kids can bicycle through the Monkey Trail. This may seem like a small downer in the scheme of things, and I realize that I had been away from Springfield for 21 years, but who am I? RIP VAN FUCKING WINKLE? What happened to the Monkey Trail?

Look, I know a lot can change in two decades. I can take the fact that another great wooded area in the neighborhood, The Gully on Fairlawn Street, is now a street with single- and two-family homes. I can come to grips with the reality that the woods on Grayson Drive was cleared to make way for the Grayson House assisted living community. I can take in stride that Greenleaf Park, where I used to play little league baseball next to the Sixteen Acres Branch Library, is now a parking lot. I can deal with the city being too cheap to repair the dam and restore the pond at Putnam’s Puddle, which was one of the best skating ponds in the city. I can understand why Western New England College needs to expand its campus into the forested areas it owns.

Am I forgetting anything? Oh yes. I can even cope with much of Springfield going from a gritty, working-class city to a depressed hellhole with a nearly nonexistent middle class. Shit happens. But why is it that nearly every one of my childhood recreation areas has vanished?

Photo: the Lumae Street side of the Monkey Trail. It's not blocked by a fence, but it's too overgrown to drive a bike into, never mind a car.

I’m taking a deep breath.

O.K. Now that I’ve calmed down a bit, I know full well that the Monkey Trail isn’t missed much in the neighborhood. Hell, kids these days would rather play computer games than ride through the Monkey Trail. Indeed, what was known as “going out to play” when I was growing up—unsupervised by adults—is all but missing in the lives of today’s kids. They’re busy with structured activities, watching TV, and texting and talking on cell phones. Now there’s actually a movement among early childhood experts to “fight for free play,” and they insist the lack of the kinds of play that foster creative thinking and innovation will put the next generation of Americans at a disadvantage in the global economy.

They point to eight to ten fewer hours of free play time per week for the average American child in the past 25 years, and I’m inclined to believe them. When was the last time you have seen kids playing without a grownup monitoring the situation? We’ve got to save the country’s future, and it all starts with places such as the Monkey Trail, where kids can, well, act like little monkeys.

Remember playing on vacant lots when you were a kid? A journalism professor I knew at Boston University, Ellen Ruppel Shell, wrote a 1994 article in Smithsonian magazine that summed up the problem of disappearing “open play” places. In your childhood, she pointed out, “There was a vacant lot or open field, a building site or back alley where you fled from time to time to escape adult judgment and scrutiny. There, far from a guardian's watchful eye, you and your friends made your own laws, appointed your own leaders, settled you own disputes. But the landscape of childhood has changed dramatically. Those vacant lots and open fields have given way to the push of progress— have been paved into parking lots or built into shopping malls and subdivisions.”

PBS even produced a documentary, book, and outreach project last year about the vital importance of open-ended creative play for the healthy development of children. This kind of play is disappearing from children’s lives as their access to woods, fields, vacant lots, parks, and other semi-wild play spaces is diminishing.

These people are right! Do you think we would have had the wherewithal and imagination to drive cars through the Monkey Trail if we had never driven our bikes through it?

I want the Monkey Trail back, dammit, and America’s competitiveness depends on such places, where kids can be kids. Let’s take back the Monkey Trail. The fence is preventing children from a good time. Destroy it, and they will come. It’s time to drive a car through this barrier to the neighborhood kids’ imagination and clear a path through to the other side. C’mon, who’s with me? What? No one wants to drive through the Monkey Trail? Come to think of it, that fence looks pretty sturdy. But so did the Berlin Wall.

Mayor Sarno, if the city of Springfield built that fence blocking the Monkey Trail, the city can dismantle it. It must crumble, like the oppressive wall in the Pink Floyd movie The Wall. Won’t somebody think of the children?

Mayor Sarno, tear down that fence.

Whew, I knew I was going somewhere with that diatribe. Of course, you know I was just kidding about plowing down that fence. In reality, the Monkey Trail is probably part of somebody's yard now, and it would be inadvisable, unsafe—and illegal—to drive your car through it. So just ride through the Monkey Trail in your imagination...and let your kids play by themselves once in a while!