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.
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).