Friday, May 27, 2011

Dad's love for a special Detroit Zoo chimp

I’ve written about some of the bad things that happened at, or at the instigation of, the Detroit Zoo’s chimpanzee show program prior to 1974. From 1932 through 1974, they churned through more than 90 chimpanzees, and almost every one was an infant or very young juvenile. The chimps were traumatized when they were captured, mostly taken from the arms of murdered mothers in Africa. I’ve written a bit about the fate of nearly all the chimps after they were “retired” from zoo show business at the crusty old age of 8 or 9 years old – not even adults yet – and sent to research facilities or breeding compounds.
Mostly I’ve written about my dad, and how the common style of chimp training in those backward and barbaric days, when they would beat the young animals, fit right in with how he “disciplined” his kids and “controlled” his wife.
Today, I want to talk about dad’s love of and for a chimp. I want to write about Jo Mendi II.
In the story that keeps repeating itself, Jo Mendi II was born in Africa, captured by hunters and sold to the Detroit Zoo for the chimp show. Incomplete records indicate he was probably born around 1942 or 1943, and the zoo got possession of him on September 24, 1945. They named him after their first chimp, Jo Mendi I, an unfortunate rapscallion who was given booze and dressed in little man’s attire, to entertain the crowds and raise money for the zoo during the Great Depression. The first Jo succumbed to trench mouth within two years.
But this second Jo was someone special, and dad obviously gave his heart to him. Jo’s photos are the only two pictures I have with dad’s handwriting. In his distinctive left-handed penmanship, with a special ink, Dad memorialized Jo’s name, and the date of the photos.
It appears that Jo Mendi II was a special treasure for everyone at the Detroit Zoo.
“A ball-rolling act with Jo doing a high dive from the top of a five-foot platform onto one of the balls was a favorite of the crowds,” writes William Austin, the zoo’s curator of education in 1974.
Of course, just because everyone loved him, it doesn’t mean that Jo’s life was grand.
“Jo Mendi II was on the cover of the May 4, 1952, Detroit Free Press magazine in prison garb that today seems a poignant reminder of the life he led performing at the zoo,” writes the zoo’s public relations staff in their celebratory history book in 2003.
Until the early 1980s – through 50 years of chimp shows – the zoo only kept ownership of one chimp past ignominious retirement: Jo Mendi II. After eight seasons and thousands of shows, in 1953 Jo retired at the age of 11, to become the zoo’s “trained chimp emeritus,” according to Austin.
Today, keeping a chimp on display in a solitary cage doesn’t seem like that big of an honor. After all, honest people can disagree on the ethics of displaying chimps, in any setting, for the amusement of humans. But back then, zoo management understood the hold that Jo had on the zoo-goers of Detroit, and they took care of him until he died in 1980, at the age of 38.
I hope Jo sensed how much he was loved… by the crowds, by most of his caretakers, and by a troubled chimp trainer who wasn’t very good at showing the love he evidently felt.


Update January 7, 2011: When I originally wrote this, I thought that the two photos of Jo were the only snapshots on which dad had written the chimpanzees' names. Since then, I have found two more photos with dad's handwriting: one of Tommy and Mary (handwriting on the back), and one of Billie (handwriting on back and front of the photo).

Friday, May 20, 2011

I know that terror...

I found another picture of dad and me.
He looks so gentle and kind.
Anyone who has lived with a violent parent can recognize the terror in an abused animal’s trembling crouch. I remember the fear that got stuck in my throat until I thought I was going to choke. I can’t forget the absolute desperation that took control of every muscle when I saw the rage building in my father’s eyes. I know what the victimized animal goes through.
I remember that fear, although I’m not absolutely certain what evoked dad’s rage. What did I do?
It may have been the time when my sister and I fought over who got to use the hair curlers that night. I must have been 11 or 12 years old, maybe younger. Our family only had one set of those “dime store” curlers, and my sister and I had to take turns using them. We both had curly hair and, of course, we both wanted smooth straight hair, so sleeping in curlers was an absolute must. To this day, we still disagree on the reason for the fight. She says it was her turn with the curlers so she used them, and I say that it was my night and she took them out of turn. Whichever it was, we both agree that I wanted them… and so I marched into the bedroom while she was sleeping and started pulling them from her head.
Well, my sister started screaming bloody murder. That would have been just the kind of thing to pull my dad’s hair-trigger temper. I remember the pounding of my heart when I saw him start to unbuckle his belt, getting ready to whip me. I can still see him doubling up that brown leather belt. I was in for it. I wasn’t like my brother, though, who would just stand there and take the belt or the punches without a sound. I ran.
I ran into our bedroom and flew to the top bunk bed. I got as far from dad’s reach as I could, cowering and crying in the furthest corner. He couldn’t reach me, but I could see the pure, boiling rage in his eyes, and my fear assailed me more than any mere belt could ever do. He must have been drunk or high, or maybe he just backed off because he knew he had “taught me a lesson,” because he didn’t get me that time. He didn’t need to. My incontrollable terror must have satisfied him.
That fear is how I understand what many entertainment chimps and orangutans endure during their training. When you see them submit meekly to their trainer, without even a tap on the shoulder, there is a good chance they obey because they know what their trainer is capable of. The physical stuff happens BEFORE the performance and, while they are onstage, the chimp is terrified of an impending beating if he screws up. Entertainment chimps carry their fear with them, just like the children of abusers.
Chimps and kids aren’t that different when we face a person who has the capability and, sometimes, the desire to beat us senseless. The difference comes in the later years. Kids grow up and move away or, like in my case, escape because the abuser kills himself. Chimps grow up and are moved into further isolation and desolation… unless they are lucky enough to find someone who cares enough to give them life in a sanctuary.
If you ever have an extra dollar or two, I hope you’ll consider supporting a chimp sanctuary, like the Center for Great Apes or Save the Chimps. Chimps are in entertainment for just the first 7 or 8 years of their life. They can live for 40 or 50 years, or more, and sanctuaries are essential.
Entertainment apes who have escaped a life of violence must rely on the kindness of people who recognize the fear in their eyes and cowering stance. They need people who will give them space and peace as they banish the monsters from their mind. In that, they are just like a chimp trainer’s daughter.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Stereotyping soldiers, abusers, and chimps...

Defense Secretary Bill Gates, on 60 Minutes Sunday, talked about the letters of condolence he writes for each soldier’s death. (My nephew graduated from the Army’s Field Artillery Basic Officer Leaders Course this week, and is thus another step closer to deployment, so I’m listening to Gates a lot these days. I want to hear that the troops are coming home, not dying.) Anyway, Gates doesn’t want the dead soldiers to be reduced to statistics so, before he writes the letter, he reads hometown news accounts to learn what he can about that person. That really hit home with me. I’m a Vietnam-era Army veteran, and I remember the scorn – even hatred – heaped on returning veterans during Vietnam. Baby killers, they were called, after My Lai. In today’s “support our troops” societal harmony, it is hard to imagine that, back then, a large segment of society saw only monstrous stereotypes in uniform.
I find myself struggling against stereotypes. Dad was an abusive father, a cruel husband, and a mean drunk. When I match those traits to the Detroit Zoo admission that “too many of the animals in the Detroit Zoo’s shows, it is now believed, were intimidated, prodded, even beaten,” I can imagine how dad’s hot temper spurred his reactions to mischievous chimpanzees. But I have to remember that not all zoo animal trainers were like dad. So, if they weren’t, why did they put up with a violent man in their profession?
The answer may be that dad could also be charming and friendly and funny. Chimp trainers were pallbearers at dad’s funeral after his suicide, so I know they liked him at the zoo. It’s interesting that in 1948, they named one of the new Detroit chimps “Art,” which was dad’s name. (Dad started working with the chimps in 1947 or ‘48.) Around the time that the zoo fired dad, I think, the guys named one of the new chimps “Sonny,” which was dad’s nickname. Both or either of these may be coincidence, but maybe not.
I guess what I’m saying is that it isn’t fair for me to lump all chimp trainers together, and it’s also not fair to look at only one dimension of a person – as ugly as that side was. Lumping all chimps together, writing about them as a stereotype, is also unfair. Like you and me, they are multi-dimensional individuals.
I superficially knew some of the chimps dad worked with. Maybe you’d like to meet them. Maybe introducing you to them, as individuals, is the least I can do to pay them the respect they deserve.
I want to start with the baby chimp who sits on dad’s lap as they pose for a public relations photo. I have two connections to this little one. First, he grew up with dad at the zoo while I grew up with dad at home. Second, when I was old enough to go to the zoo’s chimp shows, he was the star who thrilled me with his agility and antics.
Folks, meet Tarzan, the chimp who stole my heart…
Dad with Tarzan and Jimmy
The Detroit Zoo bought Tarzan from an “unknown” source on August 6, 1948. In that era, “unknown” was usually a dealer who trafficked in chimps captured in Africa. According to records, he was born in 1946, give or take two years. American and European chimp hunters in the 1940s were just starting to learn their trade and, although a couple of them expressed remorse in their memoirs, they were also quite honest in telling how they shot chimp mothers and tried to grab their babes holding tight to now-dead corpses. They beat and/or shot males who tried to protect the babies and females. So we would be safe in assuming that, when this picture was taken, Tarzan was still traumatized over the death of his mother and the violence he experienced. Was he holding onto my dad because he needed someone, anyone, to be there for him?
Starting with his stage debut in 1949, the Detroit Zoo promoted Tarzan as a star performer who was “featured for his phenomenal pogo stick gymnastics.” By 1955, he was central to the show, riding a Shetland pony and leading the group of merry apes in a western band and Davy Crockett skits.
If Tarzan was two years old when he got to the zoo, that means he was 12 years old when the zoo sent him to the trash heap known as “retirement.” He must have been a terrific little guy, because the Detroit Zoo kept him for almost ten years. That was almost unheard of – only three chimps stayed longer during the “chimp show era,” from 1932 to 1982. (Just in case I haven’t said this recently, and loudly: thank you Steve Graham [!!!], former Detroit Zoo director who stopped the shows in 1982.)
In the summer of 1958, Detroit Zoo sold Tarzan to animal dealer Fred Zeehandelaar, Inc. (For more on Tarzan's sale, see his profile.) And then the Association of Zoos and Aquariums records on Tarzan come to a dead end. They do not show Tarzan’s ultimate fate, so we can assume he did not go to another zoo. We may also be able to assume something else… In their Animals for Research: A Directory of Sources of Laboratory Animals from 1968, the Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources listed Zeehandelaar as a supplier of chimpanzees to laboratories.
As much as I want to believe that Zeehandelaar may have sold Tarzan to a private home, to someone who wanted to own a strong 12-year-old male chimp who was entering his most powerful adult years, my heart (and brain) reach a different conclusion. It would be a miracle if Tarzan – a star gymnastic performer -- didn’t end up confined in a lab as a research animal, isolated in a small, steel cage for ten, twenty, thirty or more years. Or maybe they used him in an experiment where he just died right away. 
I hope Tarzan’s ten years with the Detroit Zoo were not too terrible, that Dad and the other trainers didn’t use electric prods or beat him too badly. I hope he had at least a little happiness. And I wish there was some way I could thank this individual chimp for the delights he provided to a chimp trainer’s daughter.
Of course, reputable zoos haven’t sold their chimps into research for decades now. Instead, biological laboratories, with the enthusiastic support of the U.S. government, access or run their own chimp breeding programs. Today, nearly a thousand chimps still suffer isolation in those barren cages. Please watch this video from the Humane Society of the United States, and then write your congressional representative. I wrote my congressman, a really easy way to say “thank you Tarzan, and I’m sorry.”

Friday, May 6, 2011

Look into an orangutan's eyes

In Chimp Trainer’s Daughter, I talk about my life and my family. Writing about one’s mother, though, is hard. As they say, it’s complicated.

I am far from alone, I know, in not having my mom by my side for important, life changing events. But so many women have to deal with even worse. Like the women who didn’t have their moms as they grew up, facing the day-to-day challenges of life.

Holly Draluck, a Facebook friend, recently wrote me about her trauma. Like me, like many of us, Holly thought, “going through it all seemed just like life.”

“I was a little child, just three years old - one of those little ones who desperately clung to her mom - when my parents divorced and I went to live with my Dad. Mom was not totally ‘stable,’ as the story goes, and she really believed that they would get back together.”

When the hope faded, Holly’s mom thought she could find a good husband to provide the home to have her girls back. It didn’t happen.

Holly’s mom killed herself when Holly was in college.

So many of us know what Holly feels when she talks about experiencing guilt, “and a very heavy ‘woulda, shoulda’ weight.”

But Holly turned her pain into something wonderful. For several years, she has led a growing global “Missing Orangutan Mothers” awareness campaign. On Mother’s Day, zoos and other organizations hold events to tell people about the challenges facing orangutans who have been orphaned in the wild.

“I think I formed an even deeper connection to orangutans by being able to relate to those little orangutans torn from their mothers, as I felt that same trauma,” Holly explains. “I know what it’s like. It was not a very conscious connection at first - but when I realized it, verbalized it, I cried.”

“It's funny how my life brought me to a love and connection to orangutans,” she says. “We all carry so much inside. When you look into someone's eyes, you can't always see it but it's in there.”

“I look into orangutan eyes and I see me.”

Join other orangutan lovers at zoos across America this Sunday, as we honor MOM - Missing Orangutan Mothers. Check here to see if your zoo is participating.

And then look into an orangutan's eyes.