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

Thursday, March 1, 2012

When Forest Park Zoo Animals Attack, Part 3

What? Another blog post on the old Forest Park zoo animals? What is behind my obsession with this long-gone-fauna?

I don’t know. Could it be because when I look at these photos I put life’s stick-shift in reverse and zoom back to my childhood? That HAS to be it. I see a picture of Morganetta the elephant or Snowball the polar bear and in a millisecond I am transported back 40 years to a previous lifetime: when I’m eight years old and I don’t have the weight of the world on my shoulders. Back then, the only thing that bears heavily on my mind during a visit to Forest Park is whether I’m going to get a popcorn or a cotton candy at the concession building. As Archie and Edith Bunker sang, those were the days.

The photo above, I believe, is Morganetta’s first showing in public in 1965. This “new old” picture, taken by Robert Giustina, prompted me to look into the details of Morganetta’s final days on planet Earth, after she was shipped 3,000 miles across the continent in 1980 because of her growing temperament problem—caused, in no small way, by the conditions of her confinement in the Forest Park zoo.

But first, a few “new” photos of another one of the zoo’s “attacking” animals. Giustina also snapped this Polaroid of Snowball the polar bear, long before she was shot in the eye by a police officer, who was trying to get the bear to open her mouth and let go of a girl’s arm in 1972.

I tried in vain to find decent newspaper photos of Snowball as a cub. But here are a couple of her as a youngster:

Snowball gets hosed down during a heat wave. She died of a gastro-intestinal condition on December 19, 1979.

If you look closely at the chain link cage in the photo above you can see where Snowball used to rub against it to shed her fur. Why anyone would even consider sticking an arm through that fence is beyond me. But that’s exactly what a 16-year-old girl did in 1972, and Snowball clamped down on it, letting go only when a Springfield Police officer put a .38 caliber slug in her head. Read all about it here.

Snowball lost her right eye, but survived the shooting. This wasn’t her only traumatic interaction with the public. Unbelievably, someone splashed black and blue ink on Snowball in 1961 and the attacker also apparently teased her because she was found in an agitated state.

The incident prompted Springfield officials to consider beefing up the Forest Park police force, especially since there were grand designs to make the zoo a first-class facility. A lion and tiger were added that year, and when Red the kangaroo was killed by lightning in 1963, he was replaced by Ace in 1966. And then came Jiggs and Nancy the chimpanzees.

Fourteen-year-old Jiggs and his pregnant 19-year-old mate, Nancy, traveled from the overcrowded National Zoo in Washington, DC to Logan Airport in Boston in shipping crates in 1966. “Homely, strong, and amazingly fast,” is how Parks Superintendent Baldwin Lee described the five-foot-tall, 140-pound Jiggs.

A year later Jiggs ripped out a one-inch-thick cage bar, escaped, went on the rampage, and was gunned down by the Springfield Police. The plan was to have a nice happy family of three chimps, but it was not to be. Four days earlier, on April 17, 1967, Nancy had given birth to a male. The new mom would let no-one approach little Jiggsy, especially Jiggs, and the latter went into a frenzy. The circumstances of his escape are detailed in an earlier blog post, as is his subsequent residence in the Springfield Science Museum—he is now a stuffed exhibit there.

His breakout and execution actually made national news, thanks to the Associated Press.

I had always heard that you can still see a bullet hole in Jiggs’ head, but when I took the museum photo for Part 1 in 2009 there was no wound in sight:

But I looked closely in February 2012, and there seems to be such a mark on his right ear! Check it out:

It looks like gravity—or an indoor breeze—exposed the taxidermist’s comb-over. Blimey, this has more intrigue than the Kennedy assassination!

Yes, I remember Jiggs when he was alive, but for the last 44 years I have known the animal as a posed corpse with glass eyes in the museum. In an effort to re-animate him, I searched newspaper archives for a good photo of him in his prime, but I didn’t come up with much. He is pictured to the right of Nancy:

Here is Jiggs being handed a banana by Baldwin Lee:

I tried to zoom in on Jiggs to give the world a good idea of what he looked like in flesh and blood, instead of fur and sawdust, but this is the best I could do.

Does anyone out there have a good photo of Jiggs? Please email it to hellsaces@gmail.com.

Above is a photo of Jiggsy, but when I searched for a photo of the entire family together, all I found was that button. There must be something better out there!

Morganetta the elephant is pictured above as a four-year-old in 1968, when the sophomore class at Western New England College used her as an “anchor” in the annual tug-of-war with the freshman class. After the sophomores won, Morganetta enjoyed a bath.

This elephant’s legendary angry outbursts prompted another post, detailing the time she scared the living daylights out of me in Greenleaf Park in 1975. Morganetta? That sweetheart? She wouldn’t have harmed a fly, you say. Some say otherwise.

Her trainer, Charles Coleman, made headlines in 1969 when he suggested that Morganetta was being a bitch. No, really. He thought that because of she posed a danger to the public—the elephant was “given to fits of temper,” partly because, he said, zoo personnel were trying to get her to perform tricks, which was contributing to her “mean disposition.”

The city immediately responded with slapping Coleman with a suspension, ostensibly because he was insubordinate in swearing at head zookeeper Victoria C. Barr after she reprimanded him for being late for work. In a four-page statement he had to sign, Coleman acknowledged that he used profanities at Barr, and promised that he would swallow future public criticisms of the city and co-workers and never go to the media with his grievances.

Morganetta and Coleman (pictured above and below in 1971) had a special relationship. He gave her a bath every day during the summer in Porter Lake:

But as Morganetta grew older, larger, and crankier, some concerned zoo visitors questioned the conditions in which she lived. Chained to a cement barrel since a calf, they argued, she was a time bomb.

Morganetta is described in better times above. When she was a one-year-old she could run around in relative freedom before the dreaded leg chain produced her incessant pacing.

Morganetta’s reputation as being, well, prickly, went on into the early 1970s. Of course, I reported how the elephant stole my brother’s mitten—but that was all fun and games, right? Just like the time a child was feeding her peanuts, and she teasingly opened her fist to reveal nothing because she had run out of food. Morganetta responded by slapping her hand with her trunk. No big deal, right? The girl was actually quite amused.

But by other accounts the pachyderm was downright cantankerous on many occasions in early 1972—although she seemed to mellow by the spring. She was untethered for the Shrine Circus parade in West Springfield that May, and she “displayed none of the nasty temper that kept her out of parades for the past year,” according to the Springfield Union.

In late 1972 there was pressure to improve her living conditions after her mood turned black again. In November of that year she broke the wrist of an employee who was cleaning her cage, and she had roughed up other workers, bruising them. Animal care specialists warned that now that she was an adolescent her behavior would get worse if she were further unable to enjoy company of other elephants. “The elephant seemed in an evil temper yesterday,” reported the Springfield Union of a Grinchy Morganetta on Christmas Eve. Furthermore, her being bound by a chain was declared to not meet federal standards for keeping elephants—especially since animal inspectors found sores on her leg from the chain.

Morganetta uses a tree to scratch an itch on one of her park walks in 1971.

The plan was to build a new cage, including an outdoor enclosure, all the while loaning her to the Wild Animal Zoo near Bowie, MD, where a female elephant was needed to care for a herd of baby elephants. But the Forest Park Zoo put a halt to this scheme when a Springfield Union reporter visited the potential site of Morganetta’s temporary quarters and found that she was destined to spend the winter in an unheated barn with no electric facilities or running water.

The result of this debacle was the construction of an outdoor “play yard” in Forest Park, complete with a pool, during the warmer months. I remember being thrilled that this poor creature could roam around in such a large area, although she was again chained by her leg indoors during the winter. It was still in violation of federal animal standards, but the idea was to hold off the feds for a while so money could be raised to build a new, secure indoor cage. It never happened.

In January of 1973 Parks Superintendent Baldwin Lee actually brought up the possibility of acquiring a second elephant to keep Morganetta company, but the city seemed in no mood to acquire new animals, especially another elephant. They were thinking quite the opposite.

In 1974, Morganetta broke through “a loosely secured gate” and escaped. She never left the zoo grounds, but memories of the Jiggs and Snowball shooting incidents fueled the argument that the city was ill prepared to have a zoo, much less expand it. An outbreak of bovine tuberculosis in the zoo the previous year almost led to city officials putting down 53 animals there, but they held off on the mass-murder and killed just some of the sickest creatures, built separate enclosures for the hoofed animals that formerly roamed free in the ravine, and put up plastic sheets in front of many cages to stave off contamination.

I remember that Nancy and Jiggsy’s cage was completely blockaded with sheeting—the zoo was a mess and a depressing place to visit. The city said enough was enough. The animals were given to any zoo that would take them. The phasing out of the zoo was all but complete when the tiger, lions, and ocelot where shipped to Safari Animal Country in Saratoga, NY. The fate of the monkeys and the chimps is unknown—they were likely sold to an animal dealer. Beginning in 1975 Morganetta was being housed inside the empty former monkey house.

I have a hard time recalling Morganetta pathetically pacing back and forth in the old monkey house. Memory, of course, is fickle. While I can remember the elephant in her older cage—and her outdoor play yard—with HD clarity, my lens into the past is somewhat cloudy picturing her in her late-’70s pad. Why is that? My later memories should contain even MORE detail, but, when I probe my mind, the specifics turn to smoke and float away. Maybe my early memories are vivid because when I was a naïve child I couldn’t comprehend the fact that her cage was downright inadequate—and then in my teenage years I knew full well of Morganetta’s misery and I sort of repressed these memories. I don’t know. Maybe it was because by the late 1970s I visited the zoo a lot less—after all, by then the “zoo” (not including the small Kiddieland Zoo) consisted of just Morganetta and Snowball.

The pressure to jettison Moganetta was renewed in 1979 when she was constantly cranky again, and this time her menacing 6,000-pound frame and the annual cost of $3,000 a year to care for her contributed to the furor. The problem of the sores of her chained leg? The brilliant solution was to rotate the legs in which she was clamped. Brilliant! That was Springfield’s answer.

City officials began mulling future homes for her. Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in Hudson, NH, was prepared to discuss taking Morganetta in exchange for a baby African elephant and surplus animals, and there were also talks with the Los Angeles Zoo, which promised that she would live with two other elephants and have a chance to mate. In the end, Springfield rejected the notion of replacing Morganetta with another elephant, and the Parks Department pointed out that Benson’s was rated a “low Class 2” zoo, while the L.A. Zoo was rated Class 1—one of only 20 in the United States. Springfield was finally prepared to bid Morganetta adieu and send her westward.

“It’s kind of selfish of us to disregard what is best for her,” said Mayor Ted Dimauro. “I am sure there will be some people who think the cost factor is the only reason for this, but it is not.”

Moranetta left Springfield by truck on December 11, 1979. But she wasn’t forgotten. The January 11, 1980 issue of the Springfield Union carried a story on three Springfield residents viewing Morganetta in Los Angeles. Camilla Williams, her 12-year-old son Michael, and family friend Kathy Garceau were in L.A. visiting relatives, so they stopped by the zoo to say hello to an old friend. Morganetta had a new name—Modoc—because her new trainer found her old name too much of a mouthful when barking out commands. She was in a pen walking around with two other elephants, and she seemed to like them, even though she was a little timid, according to Camilla. And Morganetta balked at getting into the elephant habitat’s big pool on the day the Williams family visited. The trainer, Camilla said, told her “it was taking a long time for her to unwind. She paces a lot, and has been upset and nervous, but he thought she would gradually come out of it.”

Morganetta fortunately tolerated her cage-mates upon her arrival and didn’t panic, according to the Michael Crotty, the zoo’s curator of animals. She was still a bit underweight, but was eating better and responding to her daily commands of picking up her feet and lying down—a routine that is useful in case a veterinarian has to look at her. The elephant showed off her routine while her Springfield visitors were there.

Michael Williams is pictured with Morganetta—ahem—Modoc at the Los Angeles Zoo.

Morganetta’s retirement in LA-LA Land, however, was short-lived. She was found dead in the cage’s pool on July 26, 1980. The autopsy revealed she died of sudden and acute hemorrhagic enteritis—the same malady that did in Snowball.

Sadly, Morganetta was never fully able to get used to the other elephants or gain back all the weight she had lost, even though the zoo tried a variety of diets. “We were still evaluating it,” said Crotty. “She had been in with the other elephants, but socializing was still a new experience.”

It has been said that Morganetta died of a broken heart after she was separated from her longtime Springfield trainer. Her forced parting with Coleman may have been a factor in her demise, although her being attached to a four-foot chain for all those winters caused the constant pacing, and the lack of elephant companionship all those years explained her antisocial behavior. With the stress of a long truck ride, new surroundings, and a new diet, Morganetta was struggling to adjust. She needed more time, but time finally ran out on her.

Coleman’s niece wrote in the “comments” section of my first blog entry on Morganetta that the elephant “loved my Uncle Charlie. I was privileged to spend time with my uncle and Morganetta and witness this incredible bond. Morganetta did, indeed, die of a broken heart when she was separated from her keeper.”

Sometimes caged animals attack—especially when provoked—as in the cases of Snowball, Jiggs, and Morganetta. But how could I forget the other short-tempered Forest Park zoo animal: the evil white rabbit?

The seemingly innocent white bunny was the pet of my friend Craig Stewart. One day I was in his front yard and I heard him screaming and crying on his porch. Craig ran out of his house. “He scratched me!” the toddler wailed, holding out a bloody finger. The Stewart family soon donated this vicious beast to the Forest Park Zoo, and believe it or not we actually made it a point to visit the rabbit cage—usually the last stop of every zoo trip—and check out Craig’s rabbit (or at least what we thought was Craig’s rabbit, because there were several white ones). How did we know which rabbit was Craig’s? It was easy: the one with the murderous look in its eyes. So we kept our distance.

I asked Craig if he remembered the rabbit’s name and he didn’t. But he informed me that does have a picture of him holding the critter. “It would take me a while to find it,” he said. “And you can see that I peed my pants in the photo. There’s a spot on my pajamas.” Well, I can Photoshop out his face and stain, so stay tuned, because this photo will be a significant find. What a violent animal. No wonder Craig wet himself.

Good thing no foolhardy zoo visitor ever broke into the rabbit cage to pet the creatures, or there might have been a scene similar to this one:


Classical '75 X Guy said...

I look forward to your posts; they always bring back some fond memory for me. I grew up in the park and know all the characters you mention, including Baldy Lee….

When I say ‘in the park’ I mean IN the park. I would be in there from morning to night, most of the time going home covered in mud and muck with a frog or pollywog in my pocket. I did that from the time I was around 10 through my late teens and then again as a young adult with my own kids… remind me to tell you about the steaking incident one summer night in ‘74, when 4 of us got busted, one ran home to Woodside Terrace naked and two others (me included) were smart enough to carry their clothes with them and got away. Haven’t really gone in there much lately though.

I remember that EVERYONE loved Morganetta though. And I remember her walking around in circles, tied to her very short chain all day long. We all felt sad for her. I’d go mad too I think….

A lot of folks believe that Morganetta was the inspiration for Dr. Seuss’ “ Horton Hears a Who.” It’s not true though. Morganetta was born in ‘64(ish). HORTON HEARS A WHO was published in ’54, and that wasn’t even the first time that Horton appeared. HORTON HATCHES THE EGG was published in 1940, long before Morganetta was even a glisten in her father’s eye…

As far as your friend’s white rabbit goes – I’ve got some bad news…… My buddy worked at the zoo and part of his job was to tend to the rabbits. There was this old Italian guy from Trafton RD. that would come in to see my friend with bottles of his homemade wine which he would trade for live rabbits. As we all know, rabbits are very prolific and this equaled a very regular supply of very potent wine. I can only guess what the guy did with the rabbits, but the wine was delicious…… I’m not saying your buddy’s rabbit ended up in the stew pot but there is a decent likelihood that it did!!!

Hell's Acres said...

Thanks X Guy,

When I tell non-Springfield people about Jiggs and Snowball getting shot, the kangaroo getting hit by lightning, and kids feeding the monkeys candy, etc. they look at me as if I'm making this stuff up.

By the way, I think I found a short story in the newspaper archives about the South End gang starting a fight at Camp Seco--the one you mentioned. On July 2, 1976 there was a reported brawl in the area and an ambulance responded.

By the time I was going to keggers at Camp Seco from '79 to '81 (I had a lot of Forest Park friends) these gatherings were peaceful, which is remarkable because at times they attracted between 50 and 100 kids.

Calssical '75 X guy said...

That could be the one... Billy L. was the victim, I haven't seen him in years, but the last time I did, he had slurred speeech and wasn't quite all there, kind of like a stroke victim. He had brain damage from a vicious beating at Camp Seco, could have been that night....

About our friend Jiggs Jr., I know they had the plastic sheets up over the cages for a long time. I guess the official story was to prevent contamination as you point out, but my story (I think the real one) is that it was because Jigs Jr. was such a nasty pig.... he would throw his scat at you, he'd pee on you, and he had a chronic masturbation habit..... Nasty little bugger. Oh man the smell in that place is coming back to me right now.

Hell's Acres said...

Ah yes, that smell. And the unbearable heat of the reptile house.



Hell's Acres said...

Hey Karl,

Thanks. Those old photos touch a chord with a lot of people.

kosherkop said...

i'm new to this blogging stuff...like the hell's acres site...i want to send a classic picture of a forest park zoo pennant with morganetta on it...need an email address

Hell's Acres said...

Hey kosherkop: hellsacres@gmail.com.

Love for Springfield, Ma! said...

I love reading the history of Springfield! This was awesome to read!! If anyone knows any others sites or books, would love to know... Thanks!

Anonymous said...

In 1984 I was hired to be a counselor at a girl's camp in Maine. When I arrived with all the new recruits, we discovered that the Nature Director had escaped early, and the management was scrambling for a replacement. Given that I had lived since 1979 in Portland, Or., the powers that were decided I must know something about nature, and offered me the post.

Scrambling for a activities that would interest a camp full of girls one group after the other, I found a book hidden among the possessions the previous "Mother Nature" had left behind. One suggested activity was "Build a Polar Bear Enclosure." The premise was that a fictional zoo was to receive a new polar bear and needed to design a habitat that would fully meet the needs of the new arrival. The children were to consider the environmental requirements of the polar bear including it's comfort, nutrition, and entertainment. Once they had listed all their requirements, they then had to draw blueprints of new polar bear habitats.

With each new group of girls, I started the activity telling them of my early childhood trips to the Forest Park Zoo. I told them of a beautiful polar bear named Snowball who lived in a fenced cage separated by about a 3 feet strip of grass from the sidewalk, and how the public were kept from the grass and approaching the cage by a chain strung from post to post around the enclosure. I shared that as a small child, I vaguely remember thinking I could slip under that chain, cross the grass, and pet the polar bear...if only my mother would let me. I mentioned to these girls that Snowball had been shot in the eye to save a girl who had slipped beyond the chain to pet the bear. Being that this was their summer camp experience, and I only wanted to enlighten not scar them, I kept many of the details on the shooting to a minimum.

In short, I used my potentially faulty memory of a poor beleaguered bear. I pandered poor Snowball shamelessly in the hopes of entertaining 150 girls, earning my increased salary as "staff" instead of just a counselor, and surviving the summer as "Mother Nature," a title that still sets my teeth on edge. One hope, now 28 years later, is that some of those girls took my memories of Snowball, no matter how imperfect, and walked away with some increase of knowledge, compassion, or awareness of the impact they have on the world around them.

Thank you Snowball, and thank you Hell's Acres for providing respect in memory for a group of animals who received very little respect while they were alive.

Springfield Expat

Hell's Acres said...

What a great comment.

I had also failed to mention the shooting of Snowball to my son, but he's almost seven now and he can probably handle it.

These zoo animal posts generate a lot of memories among readers--as I thought they would.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for these great articles about the original Forest Park Zoo. I grew-up in the period after the original zoo closed and was replaced by the Kiddyland Zoo. (current zoo was not yet planned.) I never saw the original zoo, but grew-up hearing romantiized stories about howthe zoo had monkies, tigers, bears and deer. But no one could explain to me "why" the zoo closed. Thank to your stories, i now know what this zoo was like and why it was closed.

Btw, you can still find the original fencing behind the old kiddies land zoo. (The 8 foot fence intended to keep deer in.)

John said...


I just read your story about Morganetta and loved it! I got the chance to ride Morganetta several times as a kid. My mother grew up in Forest Park in the "Carraige House". Her father, my Grandfather, ran the park. Gene Barr lived in the little apartment below my Grandparents. My mother has great stories and fond memories of Everett Barney (the man who built the park) and playing in his huge mansion. My brothers, sisters and I got to due all the "behind the scenes" things within the park and zoo like riding Morganetta, feeding the animals, and playing with them. One of the men that showed us around the lion cage had only one arm as a result of a feeding accident with a Tiger. We even got to bring home with us a baby Donkey/Burrow as a pet. We spent many summers playing in the park and zoo.

Hell's Acres said...

Hi John,

What a great experience for you growing up. Too bad you didn't get to bring Morganetta home lol.

Orlando St. Mike said...

I remember climbing the fence to get into the elk enclosure (which was, I'm guessing several acres in extent, to scour the small valleys for the discarded deer antlers of which my friends and I found several. We always wanted to garner an elk antler but Now I figure the park employees could easily find those. I came face-to-face with the elk once at his feeding place but through a careful backing around managed to get to the fence and climb over. LOL!I also remember that the deer would lick our hair to get the salt from our sweat. Once when one had escaped, I found it down by the wooden trail around Porter Lake and, though it was unenclosed and free to go it came up and licked my hair once again.
I remember all the animals, the huge water buffalo, the elk of course, the polar bear, the aoudad rock sheep, and especially the monkey house. Does anyone remember the two huge buffalo heads mounted over the doorway on the inner side? The smell of that place could peel your eyeballs! We would spend the entire day at the park and just come home at night. Different days for sure.

Hell's Acres said...

I remember the buffalo heads in the monkey house. Did you know Steve Austin on Orlando Street?

Orlando St Mike said...

Sure do remember Steve Austin. Also Bobby Partridge, Bobby Leary, Gary and David Palmer the Kanes, and does anyone remember John H. Breck (who lived next door to us and who started the Breck Shampoo Co.)

Jean Wood said...

What is the current salary of zookeepers at Forest Park Zoo?

Hell's Acres said...

Hi Jean,

I have no idea.