Zoo at Wildwood Park

Harold L. Plasterer

I have never written a story, however I will try to record this story for a friend of mine The experiences I had during one month of my life. Let us say the most interesting and amusing part will be the story of a tale of a monkey, and a monkey tail.

The reason for my involvement was that a number of prominent citizens of Harrisburg felt that the city should have a zoo, and they organized a zoological society with dues for expenses. But the original cost to be by donation. It was a popular idea and the backers donated freely.

A site was selected in Wildwood Park, owned by the city, at the north end of the city. There was a house on that area suitable for the caretaker. The whole area would be enclosed by eight feet chain link iron fence, so constructed to keep people from climbing over. There would be three fenced areas suitable for deer, elk and buffalo. The cages would be constructed to house the larger species of Pennsylvania wild life.


Someone got the idea a zoo - where could you find a zoo that did not have at least one cage of monkeys? So, the head of the Zoological Society, Mr. Stackpole, went to New York and contacted an importer and bought at his own expense 24 monkeys of three species – 4 green monkeys, 8 Java monkeys and 12 Rheeses monkeys. The dealer would keep them until the zoo was ready for them. About that time it was discovered that the man who designed the cages did not know about caging such animals as foxes, raccoons and animals of that size. The hinges of the gates and doors had an opening between the back and the metal posts that was close to five inches wide.

It was about this time in the operation that the Game Commission gave me a month’s leave of absence and assigned me to the city of Harrisburg to help them get the zoo in operation. I did not want the job, but I realized that I was the only employee in the office who knew how to handle the species of Pennsylvania wildlife that would be put in the cages, feed them and care for them. The only animals not native were the three species of monkeys – 24 of them.

The first day I went to the city office and met the man in charge of the outdoors of the city. He took me to the site of the zoo. There I learned that the power lines were only partly installed, and I had to see that they were placed properly for illumination. They were only digging the ditches for the water lines that there would be water available for animal use and for hosing out the cages.

There were carpenters building board shelters for most of the cages for the animals in case of bad weather. It was my duty to have them made for the animals that would use them. I spent most of my time with an iron man adjusting the cages that were for smaller animals so that they could not run out through the five inch space between the back of the door and the support of the iron post of the cage. We had all cages fixed except for the cage for the monkeys. The first week ended, but I had to be present all day Sunday for my usual period - 7 a.m. until 9 p.m.

Monday morning, the morning paper had an article in it without saying to me. That read the first day the zoo would be open to the public. I had to get another article published postponing the opening until a later time. The first story was the signal for the start of the pony stampede. The first pony arrived while I was away and an employee accepted a free pony and turned him loose in the small field prepared for deer. That pony was dangerous. He would come up to a man, rear up on his back feet and come at you with both front feet cutting at you. One day one of the workmen was in that field. John was short in stature but was very strong. The pony walked up to him, reared up and came at him with both front hoofs flying. John always wore bib overalls with a wide waist line. The pony fell forward and one front leg went down inside the overalls almost to John’s knees. There was John holding onto the chain link fence at his back and pounding the pony’s nose with his right fist. As soon as the pony came at John, several of the workmen hurried into the field and were able to separate the pony from John and everyone but John got a good hearty laugh.

The first article in the paper started the ponies and their owners on the advance. They would come to the zoo leading an old pony. They had a sunny smile and would say, “we are going to give the city this pony free!” Their smiles were erased by my statement, “No, you are not. This is not a pony ranch. It is a wild animal zoo, and don’t you dare turn that pony loose and leave it here.” After two days and an unknown number of ponies, the rush of ponies was stopped by a newspaper article stating the city would not accept any ponies. I assumed that the owners tried to sell the ponies and when no one would buy the ponies they were offered as give a ways.

Now we come to the monkey’s part in the story. When the first announcement of the opening of the zoo appeared in the paper, Mr. Stackpole called the dealer that had sold him the monkeys and told him to ship them by express. The express company delivered three crates of monkeys to the zoo. Mr. Stackpole and his family were there.

The monkey cage was not yet finished by the iron worker, but we wired a stout piece of wood at the hinges of the gate so that the monkeys could not get out, and not interfere with the opening or closing of the gate. Then his driver and I carried the three crates into cage. The crates were made of very poor wooden boards and we had to break some so the monkeys could get out, but did not open enough until we could open all three at the same time. Rip, the boards were off and the monkeys were out. It was more like an explosion than an exit. When they hit the deck there was the greatest monkey fight you could ever imagine. It was just a constant swirl of monkeys. One thing I was never able to understand was that the Rheeses monkeys seemed to be in an uncontrollable rage. They seemed to fight those of their own species as they did the other species.

Mr. Stackpole had visions of seeing all 24 monkeys lying there in the cage dead. He said to me, you will have to catch all those monkeys and put them back in the crates. I knew by the way we had opened the crates that it was not possible to repair them enough to hold even one monkey in any one of them. I had another thought on my mind. I had no bite proof gloves there, and by the time I had caught a couple of monkeys I would not have a finger left on my hand.

My experience told me that at the speed of the fight, they would all be tired out and there would be one monkey who would declare himself boss of all of them, and he would not allow any of them to fight. I had a ring side seat to witness the only blood shed in the fight. A green monkey with a two foot long and slender tail was trying to crawl up the side of the cage to be with the other 3 of his species when a Rheeses monkey jumped up and sank his teeth into the green monkey’s tail. The one was trying to go up and the other was trying to pull him down. Suddenly the tail parted where the teeth of the Rheeses monkey teeth were clamped. Three green monkeys jumped to the top and the other fell to the floor on his back with the 5 inch end of the tail in his mouth. The very few drops of blood from the severed tail were the only blood that was shed. I don’t doubt that all of them had painful bruised spots all over them.

None of them had received any food since they were put in the crates in New York. I broke up a loaf of stale bread and scattered it on the floor. There was a rush for the food. They mingled together with no thought of fighting. The fight was over and Mr. Stackpole was a happy man. So was I.

The final act of the fight was when the little male Java monkey hopped up on one end of the broad (?) that was 3 feet wide and 6 feet long and about 8 screaming Rheeses monkeys on the other end of the roof of the shelter box. He was as calm as could be and the other 8 were all thinking of going to attach him at the same time. But every one of them were afraid to make the last leap. It really looked as if he had them hypnotized, for they could not take their eyes off of him. He would turn his head and look to the side and they would jump towards him, but his head would snap back and they would back up to their end of the shelter. That happened quite a few times, then when they rushed to the middle of the shelter when his head snapped back he made a quick jump towards them. They went into high reverse but again they were unable to take their full attention from him to look where they were going and they all fell backwards off the top and they did not try that until I had fed them and peace reined.

When the first date was announced for the zoo, the city invited Doctor Brown, the head of the Philadelphia Zoo, to visit our new zoo but failed to tell of the change of dates, and he and his family arrived on time. It was a pleasure to meet and talk with him. I told and showed our problems. I told him of the monkey fight, he smiled and approved of my way of handling that problem. I also got some first hand information of the care and feeding of monkeys. Some food had to be cooked. Stale bread was part of the diet, bananas just sliced and the monkeys eat the peel and all.

I think that Doctor Brown was there before we worked on the cage door. We start now and that is another part of the monkey story. We had the space to the upper hinge fixed and the long space from the upper hinge to the lower one and he did not have a short piece to go from the lower hinge to the floor. I knew we had a short piece of the correct length at another cage, so I said I would go get it. He stayed in the cage. Just as I picked up the piece about 50 yards away, I heard the workmen yelling. I looked up and there was a chain of monkeys climbing up a small oak tree about an inch in diameter that was growing close to the cage door. It was tall enough so that the monkeys could jump from the top of the small tree to a lower limb of a giant oak tree that would enable them to travel over a large area by jumping tree to tree. The time required to clear the place to make the jump (?). When the employees and the iron worker yelled and went running, there was about half of the monkeys still on the ground ran back into the cage and the door was shut. How did the monkeys get out? That was very simple. While he was waiting, he decided to go to the house to get a drink and walked away with the door wide open. Monkeys don’t prefer traveling on the ground, but there was a nature made escape route. But the yelling of the men at least half of the monkeys went back into the cage. My job now was to get the escapees back in the cage, but first I had to secure the ones that were in the cage.

I had several wire cages that belonged to the Game Commission. I fastened the largest ones together, then caught all the monkeys in the cage with well protected hands. I had to grasp them from the back of the neck. It took time and energy. My next step was to get the others back in the cage. I had to depend on empty stomachs and food. I was able to fasten a long cord to the gate that I could pull the gate shut from the house. I opened the gate and scattered dry bread on the floor. I think there were 5 that came down the first time. I caught them a few at a time. I had to go in each time and put them into the small cage. I stayed on watch all night and by morning, I had all but two. The boss monkey and his small girl friend who rarely left his side. She made a slight mistake the next day and I grabbed her. The presence of his only friend and the great need of food and water made it necessary for him to risk going into the cage – and get caught.

What a relief it was to be able to report it to the City and the Zoo organization. This is an example of God’s help when you need and ask Him for His help. He is always near and ready for your call. The rest of the month was rather routine for me and the zoo at tat time was considered a success. Not long after I went back to the Game Commission with the help of a few men from the city helped me take a buck deer and doe and a fawn from a park and liberated them in the fenced area. Shortly after that, they accepted a pair of elk and a pair of buffalo. A couple years later, they hired a young man who was able to manage a zoo. A couple years later, they built a couple of wooden building to house the monkeys and some smaller animals and a couple large cages were installed for the display of lions and tigers. After years, the residents lost interest in the zoo and it was abandoned – the animals given to other zoos. There is now a college on the old zoo area.

As I end my story, this is not fiction. It is a true account of my experience.

Harold L. Plasterer

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