Saturday, February 26, 2011

A daughter's dark tale of abuse at the zoo chimp show: how kids and apes suffer together

Performing for humans, Detroit zoo, 1950s
It’s never a good time to beat a chimpanzee, even if it happened years ago and you can try to make some weak excuse for it, that people didn’t know better then, that those were the old days when we were only partly human.

But people always know better. We know better now and still do things we shouldn’t do. That’s human nature.

Years ago the Detroit zoo had a chimpanzee show that was cute for its time and would still be cute today by some people’s standards.


One of the trainers was a troubled man named Arthur. Not long ago I started chatting with his daughter Dawn Forsythe on the Facebook network I have for people around the world interested in apes and wild animals.

What an inspiring story that would be, I thought, to be a child raised by a chimp trainer. That would show real humanity and a child would have a unique perspective on apes. I had just written a blog about how orangutan moms were better than tiger moms and now I could talk about the great chimpanzee dad.


But something was wrong. Dawn hinted there was a darker side that I might not want to know. In the end it was one of those stories you hear before you can absorb it all fully and then realized you have been a bit tainted just to have listened.

But Dawn had a need to tell the story and I had a need to hear it. You can’t be fully human if you ignore the cruelty of life and want only romantic images to make you feel good.

This is a survivor's tale. It tells the ugly story of the abuse of chimps in a way that gives us a personal connection to what happened. It is easy for human beings to ignore the abuse of apes -- including keeping them confined and in captivity against their will without having committed a crime -- because apes are "just apes," different from us, apparently without the greater sensitivity to bad treatment that we have, apparently somehow able to tolerate abuse better as "animals." But  apes  are part of the same evolutionary family tree as we are, with similar thoughts and feelings. 

Arthur training the chimpanzees in the 1950s.
The story of this woman as a child puts the abuse in a startling light: we have to consider that the same abuse is being given to human and ape alike and might feel the same. An ape suffers like a child suffers.

“When other kids had an ailing grandma staying at their house,” Dawn told me, “my family had a recuperating chimp in the basement. My aunt also owned a chimp. Keepers took animals home with them in those olden days.

“I can still remember the first time I held a chimp’s hand. I can remember the leathery feel of his palm and fingers, the thrill of connecting, a real, physical connection.”

The background is hazy from her childhood. She is not sure about the details of her father, Arthur. The family whispered that he was in the marines for a few weeks until he got kicked out and maybe had a chance at redemption, by the fluke of getting a job at the zoo, seen “in newspaper articles and in family pictures, surrounded by adoring chimps.”


“The most favourite times of my young life was when I went to the Detroit Zoo chimp shows. Oh, the thrill when the chimps zoomed onto the stage, in their little electric cars, or on their bikes. They were so cute, and I was so proud to see my dad there.


The wild, wild west in old Detroit
“In the 1950s, the zoo had three 30-minutes shows daily. They would dress the chimps in cowboy outfits or sailor suits or striped prison garb. The chimps would pedal a bike or ride in little electric cars, or they’d walk on stilts. One of the chimps rode a motorcycle. Little Tarzan mastered the pogo stick. The chimps actually rode Shetland ponies! I think it was during a Davy Crockett skit. I also loved it when they would pretend to be a band, which each one playing a fiddle or drums.”

One day, when she was five or six, she was backstage at the chimp show, close to the chimps, the professional performers.  “I was in heaven. No grills or cages or walls between us, so close that I could reach out to touch them when they went by. I felt like I knew them personally. Sort of like they were my stepsisters and stepbrothers. After all, we kind of shared the same dad. I imagined they must have been having a wonderful time. I thought that chimps stayed darling forever.

“Dad always talked with pride about Jo Mendi II, how he was so smart and good. When dad wasn’t happy with the bunch of us kids arguing, he used Jo as the example of a perfect child. It’s hard to live up to that!

“To outsiders, it looked like the chimps were one big happy family. What the zoo visitors didn’t realize was that, until 1971, the entertainment chimps lived in small individual cages, without normal social interaction. I don’t remember ever seeing them on natural ground. It was all tile and cement and cages.”
  
The shows stopped years ago. In 2003, the Detroit Zoo’s anniversary publication admitted that animal shows were “a practice that today we would consider cruel ... The animals succumbed out of fear...Too many of the animals in the Detroit Zoo's shows, it is now believed, were intimidated, prodded, even beaten."

“It all makes sense now,” says Dawn. “At home, dad was a brutal man, often punching my mother and my little brother. I got the belt a lot. He was an alcoholic and, mom told us later, took “street drugs,” whatever they were. He would flare at any moment, reaching out to grab or punch or slap, or verbally abuse. At one point, he chased my mother out of the house and down the block, waving a gun at her. He thought it was okay to use violence to “teach” his kids and “discipline” his wife.

Joan, the wife and mother, was a manic-depressive and spent years later in psychiatric wards. Why did she put up with the abuse? She had no way, says Dawn, of taking care of five children her own. After the chimp trainer, she  led an unsettled life, marrying and divorcing six or seven times. 

Arthur with the "adoring" chimpanzees. He was later fired.
So, in a way, the chimps were an extension of a dysfunctional human family. “It must have been really bad for the chimps under his control," says Dawn. "In later years, mom would hint that dad had been abusive with the chimps, but she never came out and admitted it.

“Dad was fired sometime in the late 1950s, after someone saw him throw a young chimp against the wall. I’m betting it wasn’t the first time.

“I had such a strange relationship with my father. I loved seeing him with the chimps, and hearing his stories when he came home from work. His stories about the zoo would make me laugh or gasp with amazement. He had a huge scar across his chest, and he told us that an elephant had tried to crush him and that’s how he got the scar. Wow, such a brave man. The true story is that he sliced himself, intentionally, with a knife. I don’t know if that was before or after mom found him with a gun pointing at his head, rigged up to fire when his toes pulled a piece of rope.

“When I was 14 years old, dad had been unemployed for a couple of years. He spent several months at Pontiac State Hospital, originally named Eastern Michigan Asylum.  One February night in 1964, I was watching television. Dad started throwing papers into the fireplace, producing a blazing fire. Then he punched a mantel clock, bloodying his fist. He ripped his shirt off and wrapped his fist. I went and woke my mother and returned to the front room. And then I just sat there. Mom asked dad what he was injecting into his arm, and he said “vitamins.” She knew better, and ran for the phone. He hit her, and shoved her against the wall. Then he drank the mixture. It was cyanide. Mom sent me out of the house, and told me to go to where my kid sister was babysitting. As I walked out into the night, dad yelled at me to “tell the neighbourhood what a lousy dad you have.”

It’s all old history now. The cruelty of the man towards others was also self-destructive. 

Dawn, born in Detroit in 1952, left home at sixteen, then later joined the army. She has been a legislative analyst, political consultant, lobbyist, and public affairs director and lived in Chicago, Honolulu, and South Lake Tahoe. Married and divorced twice, she works now for the NOAA in Washington, D.C. and has a dog and four cats. 

Did her childhood leaves scars? She says the hatred of her father did -- and the chimps would have suffered mentally and emotionally too. The family hid the suicide and Dawn felt a terrible guilt. She tried to commit suicide twice in her twenties and then says she realized he had to forgive her father to find a release for herself. "So I did."

The Detroit zoo stopped using chimps in entertainment shows, but the practice continues elsewhere in different parts of the world. Orangutans are used in boxing matches in Thailand and I saw them used in an entertainment show at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park in 2004. Dawn says it is a practice that appalls her. "I won't watch shows or the ads. I won't even buy any greeting cards with the 'funny' chimp faces."


Detroit Zoo program from 1948

What happened to the chimps? Jo Mendi II retired from his theatrical career in 1953 after eight seasons on the boards. He stayed on the zoo under the rank of “trained chimp emeritus.” Others were sold as “cage animals.”


In 1956, the zoo sold Mike to an animal dealer, who sold him to a New York nightclub owner for $500. After he went on a rampage in New York city, the zoo brought him back, then sold him to the federal space program when it was cheaper to risk the life of a fellow ape.

Mike became a test pilot for acceleration tests. That's because human beings want to travel faster and faster and get away from their planet and got Mike to help. But going faster or leaving the planet are not necessarily a solution to what ails us, as any chimpanzee knows. 

As for Mike, too bad we didn't know him better. He was a chimpanzee.

Postscript: Within days of this blog being posted, Dawn Forsythe set up her own blog to explore the intersection of the lives of human beings and chimpanzees beginning with her experience years ago. It should be an amazing journey and will make a fascinating book in the end. You can follow Dawn's story at her blog site linked to this Intimate Ape blog site  www.chimptrainersdaughter.blogspot.com
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