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.”


  1. Another good blog Dawn!! As a former studbook keeper (but not of chimps) I would not be so quick to assume that Tarzan did not go to another zoo. In those days, many zoos kept sketchy or no records (AZA accreditation and, I believe, USDA, now require much more documentation). Animal names were often changed and are indicated when the studbook keeper knows (i.e.;Charlie/Scotty/Bobo), but sometimes, particularly if they went via a dealer, names were not considered important. Looking forward to your next blog and thanks for helping us to focus more on the individual, both human and ape...

  2. Thanks for your observation Melanie. I've posted more detail in the "About Tarzan" tab on the top of the home page. I think if you read Tarzan's full sales history that summer, you'll see that the Detroit Zoo was not looking for a transfer to another zoo and that the dealer did not do much chimp business with zoos anyway.