Detroit Zoo chimps

See my article, Chimp Shows Amuse and Abuse, in International Zoo News, March/April, 2013.

From 1934 through 1984, the years of the Detroit Zoo chimp show era, the zoo churned through a hundred chimpanzees, and almost every one was an infant or very young juvenile. While my dad worked at the zoo, from 1948 to 1964, over 70 chimps were shipped into the zoo, used on stage, and then shipped out to spend the rest of their 40 or 50 years isolated in a research laboratory.

Coming from Africa...
These chimpanzees were young when they arrived in their wooden crates, but they weren’t happy and carefree. Because the vast majority of chimps coming into Detroit Zoo are listed as coming from Africa or from “unknown” sources, it is a sure bet that the baby chimps were traumatized, brutally ripped from the arms of murdered mothers.
Most of the Detroit Zoo chimpanzees prior to 1974 were wild born in Africa, taken from their mothers (who were usually killed), and brought by a dealer to the U.S., where they were sold as one- or two-year-olds. American and European chimpanzee 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.
Taking a baby chimpanzee in Africa almost always means chimpanzee death – for the mother who won’t give up her baby, and for the males who try desperately to protect the females and infants from the hunters. It is estimated that, on average, between five to ten chimps died for every baby taken.
Living and working at the Detroit Zoo...
Once they got to the Detroit Zoo, the chimpanzees were immediately set on a training schedule for the chimp shows. To force a chimp to do something totally unnatural, like riding a bicycle in harmony with other young chimpanzees who share the stage and in front of hundreds of laughing children, requires complete submission by the chimpanzee. The chimp must, at all times, submit to the trainer. Chimpanzees all have different personalities, just like humans, and some may not give up their self-identity quite so readily. It’s not surprising, then, that the trainers would beat the young animals, to force their undivided attention on the training.
It wasn’t just physical abuse, though. It was mental, as well. Until 1971, the zoo housed the chimpanzees in sterile cages, each by himself. Chimpanzees are naturally social animals. They need to live in groups with loves and jealousies and power struggles, but the Detroit Zoo did not allow them to form bonds with the other zoo chimpanzees. All attention, all dependence, must be on the trainers.
After the zoo...
You can only “command” a chimpanzee for so long. The show chimps generally lasted only two, three, or maybe five years on stage, and were “retired” from zoo show business at the crusty old age of 8 years old or younger. In human years, they weren’t even teen-agers. After “retirement” (what a sweet word, often masking life’s trash bin for great apes), the zoo sold too many to biological research labs or unceremoniously dumped them into breeding facilities, where they would live in inhumane conditions for 40 or more years. And the zoo would just order new baby chimpanzees from the dealers.


The Detroit Zoo used Jo Mendi to encourage public donations
to the Community Fund during the Great Depression
Jo Mendi was Detroit Zoo’s first chimpanzee. He arrived at the zoo on February 1, 1932. The zoo estimated that he was about 10 years old.
Although “Jo was plagued with illness from the beginning,” according to Detroit Zoo education curator William Austin, the zoo used Jo in its first chimp show starting that spring, charging ten cents admission. According to Austin, the zoo stopped that year’s shows earlier than planned, on September 28, because Jo was too sick to perform.
In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, Jo was pulling in the zoo crowds. Audience seating was increased to 400 (up from 250 the year before), and Jo was giving 12 to 14 shows daily. The Detroit Zoo even booked Jo Mendi for outside gigs. For instance, he earned $9000 for ten days at the Michigan State Fair.
Jo got very ill during the 1934 entertainment season, so the zoo reduced his work to two performances a day. He died of trench mouth on September 7, 1934. Jo earned more than $30,000 as a performer during his 31-month “career” at the Detroit Zoo.


Jo Mendi II was born in Africa in 1942, give or take two years. The Detroit Zoo took ownership of him on Sept 24, 1945.
He started performing in 1946, evidently by himself. In The First 50 Years: An Informal History of the Detroit Zoological Park, curator of education William Austin writes about the 1947 shows: “The proceeds from the Jo Mendi Theater [the special performance area, named after the zoo’s first performing chimpanzee] were $11,000; however, activity was handicapped by the lack of trained chimpanzees. The basic show was put on by only one animal, forcing a serious reduction in the number of shows given per day.”
By 1949, five other chimpanzees had joined Jo Mendi II in Detroit Zoo show business, and in 1951 three more chimps were on the main stage with Jo.
In 1953, after eight seasons and thousands of shows, Jo retired at the age of 11, to become the zoo’s “trained chimp emeritus.” His was a forced retirement, “after he got too aggressive with the other chimps in the show,” according to Wonders Among Us: Celebrating 75 Years of the Detroit Zoo.
The Detroit Zoo estimates that over 1.35 million people saw Jo Mendi II perform. Zoo director Frank McInnis stated “Jo Mendi II was the only chimp I ever liked.”
It is unclear what kind of conditions Jo Mendi lived in during his 27 years of retirement. In 1971, the show chimpanzee quarters were changed from individual cages to a large one-room group facility, but I don’t know what Jo’s exhibit and night quarters were like. I am trying to find out, but Scott Carter, the Detroit Zoo Chief Life Sciences Officer, tells me there are no records and no one who remembers conditions for the great apes way back in those olden days.
Jo Mendi II died on January 6, 1980, at 38 years old.


Dad is holding Tarzan in this press photo
The Detroit Zoo bought Tarzan from an “unknown” source on August 6, 1948. In that era, “unknown” was usually a dealer who trafficked in chimpanzees captured in Africa. According to records, he was born in 1946, give or take two years.

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.

On June 10, 1958, the zoo transferred Tarzan to some entity called “USACORPS.” I can’t figure out who that was, since it was never mentioned again in the records of over a thousand chimpanzees who have been in U.S. zoos. Regardless, a month later he was transferred back to the zoo, which may indicate a problem with the deal. The zoo quickly found a solution, it appears, sending Tarzan to Fred Zeehandelaar, Inc. within two weeks. In federal court records (in 1973, the U.S. charged Fred with importing cheetahs in violation of the Endangered Species Act), Zeehandelaar is repeatedly called “an importer of wild animals.” Association of Zoos and Aquariums records show that he dealt with only eight chimpanzees during decades of working with zoos, supplying four from Africa, and handling the other four as zoos sought to get rid of their chimpanzees. In three of those four cases, records come to a dead end with Zeehandelaar. (Two of those three cases are chimpanzees from Detroit.) They do not show the ultimate fate of the chimpanzees, so we can assume they did not go to other zoos.
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 really wanted a strong 12-year-old male chimpanzee 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.


Julius was born in Africa in 1950 or 1951, and came to the Detroit Zoo in November 1953. He was soon a star of the show.

Julius with James Holden, 1959

I will let a newspaper article tell Julius' story: (June 21, 1960 - The Milwaukee Journal)

Chimp Retires to Sidelines; Refuses to Ape Mankind
Detroit, Mich. - AP - There comes a time in every chimpanzee's life when the bright lights lose their glamor and the applause of thousands no longer sends the performer's heart soaring.
Such a time came for Julius Tuesday.
Julius, 10, the head chimp of the Detroit Zoo, was retired.
Julius' ordeal began Sunday. He refused to dress for his motorcycle riding act in the show the chimps put on for visitors to the zoo. He wouldn't walk the tightrope. And when it came to driving his little motorcar, Julius wouldn't budge.
Frank McInnis, zoo director, tried to snap Julius out of it. Julius wouldn't snap. Tuesday, McInnis ordered Julius retired to the great ape house. There Julius will mingle with common monkeys that never have trod the boards or known what it is to be a great performer.
And when the lights dim and the big show goes on, Julius won't even be able to watch from the sidelines as his successor, Jazbo, goes through his paces and hears the thunderous applause which once belonged to Julius.
Unfortunately, the ending for Julius probably wasn't as happy as Mr. McInnis implies. If he "mingled with common monkeys," it was only for two months. The zoo got rid of him on August 24, 1960. He is officially "lost to files," which means he was likely dumped into a laboratory somewhere. Such was often the fate of Detroit's "great performers." 

Videos of zoo history, produced by the Detroit Zoo
Some interesting video, including short snippets of the chimp shows...
Keeper of our Future, Part I (the chimp show starts at 7:30)
Keeper of our Future, Part II (Jo Mendi I is in the first 30 seconds, another show snippet at 3:10)

Today's Detroit Zoo chimpanzees
For some reason, the zoo does not now provide their visitors with the names of their chimpanzees. The latest identifications that I have are from the 2009 Chimpanzee Studbook, maintained by Steve Ross at the Lincoln Park Zoo, for all AZA accredited zoos in North America.

As of 2009, Detroit had 11 chimps:
  • Trixi and Bubbles, both females, were born in Africa around 1971, captured, and brought into the zoo system as babies. Detroit acquired them in 1989.
  • Abby (born 1983), Akati (1987), Nyani (1991), Tanya (1991), and Chiana (1994) are females.
  • Bahati (1984), Kiri (1989), Imara (1995), and Ajua (2008) are males.
Of the chimps at Detroit in 2009, four were born at the Detroit Zoo: Nyani and Tanya are daughters of Joe-Joe (1973-2007) and Trixi; Chiana is a daughter of Joe-Joe and Abby; and Ajua is a son of Imara and Akati.

Detroit Zoo signage
The zoo used to have signage that explained some of the history of the show chimpanzees, but that sign was evidently taken down in the summer of 2011. Here are two sections, from a photo taken in June 2011. (I believe that is my dad with the chimpanzees. It looks like him, but I can't be sure...)


  1. It is so sad that we would abuse these intelligent chimps who are like children. It would be like beating or forcing our 2 and 3 year olds to do tricks even though they are upset and crying. It is a mockery of them, forcing them to dress like clowns because they are intelligent, they are social and it is even more barbaric that the ones coming from Africa were ripped from the arms of their dead mothers. Today, they should be in as natural a setting as possible, as big a space as possible and they should NOT be used for research in labs where they are kept in sterile, concrete cages. This is mental torture for them. We must sign all legislation to stop chimps from being used in research. We are the only country still doing this. Common, America, let's get with the program and stop this torture!!

    1. I totally agree with everything you said. Couldn't have said it better.
      -Primate Lover

  2. Where did you find those pictures? I'm doing a news report and would love to use hose if I could credit them.

    1. Thank you for offering to give credit. Since you are anonymous, I can't email you with the information. Please email me at


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