Jacksonville Zoo (for Harry Crews, Jiggs and Gandai)

by Tim Gilmore, 9/6/2019

1. Dissing Jiggs

Jiggs had been dead a week.

In the summer of 1980, Jiggs was 27 years old and suffering from congestive heart failure and liver failure. He’d been diagnosed with tuberculosis, of which illness the medical examiner found no trace in his autopsy.

a still from A Day at the Zoo, early 1960s, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Jiggs had grown up in Borneo, a smart boy, learning early the best places to find figs and the delicious but thorn-rinded durians, surely the world’s worst smelling fruit, doing his best to spear fish from rivers.

He’d mourned for much longer than his captors expected when they removed him from his home and his family and brought him to Columbus, Ohio.

Jiggs, from a Jacksonville Zoo postcard, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Dr. Peter Lipkovic, chief medical examiner for Duval County, didn’t hide his anger when the autopsy was over. “I didn’t know this when I agreed to do the autopsy,” Lipkovic fumed. He’d expected to find the tuberculosis with which Jiggs had been misdiagnosed.

Instead he found PCP, Phencyclidine, “Angel Dust,” the dissociative hallucinogenic drug that urban legends said resulted in both psychosis and superhuman strength. PCP had been developed as an anesthetic in the 1950s but by 1980 was used solely as a street drug. Since it hadn’t been on the market for 15 years, why the hell were Jiggs’s doctors dosing him with PCP the day before he died?

Jacksonville Zoo postcard, early 1980s, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

“They gave the animal less than the prescribed dose and he went to sleep and never woke up,” Lipkovic said.

Jiggs had made national headlines seven years before. In 1973, Dr. James Savoy said Jiggs had lived in Columbus for 15 years, along with the zoo’s other Bornean Orangutan, Mimi. The Columbus Zoo was sending them to Jacksonville to accommodate Columbus’s growing gorilla family.

Colo, courtesy Smithsonian magazine

Savoy said somebody had to go—either the orangutans or “our gorillas, our babies.” He meant Emmy, Oscar and Toni—six, four and two years old, the children of Columbus’s superstar Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity.

On June 19, 1980, two days after Jiggs’s autopsy story, the Associated Press syndicated a photo of Jack Meyer, curator of mammals for the Jacksonville Zoo, big smile, arms akimbo, welcoming Geoffrey, a young orangutan, to his new home. Literally and figuratively, Jiggs was yesterday’s news.

from The Pensacola News Journal, June 19, 1980

2. Fine Animals, A Long Way from Home

Pete Butcher walked to the Jacksonville Zoo, eager to see the yaks.

“He had read in the paper that the zoo had to sell its lion because it could not afford horsemeat anymore, so Pete knew they weren’t shipping in dry mountain grass from hundreds of miles away for something that looked like an ox.”

But when Pete got to the zoo, after walking the bridge across the Trout River, he discovered that a yak bore little resemblance to an ox, that yaks “looked like very tired milk cows without udders.” Children stood about in lazy disorder, throwing rocks at the yaks and eating cotton candy.

Clearly, Jax booster clubs weren’t about to echo Harry Crews’s depictions of Jacksonville, nor address the woes of yaks in Crews’s 1992 novel Scar Lover. “Jacksonville,” Crews writes, “was a town full of itinerant sharecroppers and sons of sharecroppers who had drifted down out of Georgia when the crops failed, to sell their hands and backs to anybody and any business that had use for them. Consequently, everything about the sprawling place was poor.”

a still from A Day at the Zoo, early 1960s, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Pete Butcher’s visit was not the robotically choreographed 24-minute film called A Day at the Zoo, produced by Russell-Barton Film Co. sometime in the early 1960s, which calls the Jacksonville Zoo “the finest in the Southland.” Set to a frenzied circus march, the film shows parents walking woodenly about the zoo with their children, feeding cotton candy to giraffes and elephants and buying corn dogs.

Crews wrote the Florida and Georgia he knew. His childhood reads like bad Southern Gothic puns. He grew up 100 miles northwest of Jacksonville, in Bacon County, Georgia, where, as a young boy, he fell into a “scalding vat,” where hog carcasses were immersed in near-boiling water to prepare for butchering.

Harry Crews, bio photo for Scar Lover, 1992

Crews taught writing at the University of Florida from 1968 to ’98 and died in the college town he’d for so long made his home in 2012. They called his writing “Grit Lit” as much as Southern Gothic. He wore his hair in mullets and mohawks, showed off his tattoo of the E.E. Cummings line, “How do you like your blue eyed boy, Mr. Death?” and survived many a drunken bender. Gainesville still burbles with stories like when Crews passed out drunk in the elevator in Turlington Hall and his students kept pushing buttons to send him back and forth between floors.

Jacksonville features often in Crews’s writing, never positively. As the city situated halfway between Crews’s birthplace and his adoptive home, Jax represented every vile and violent fact about his own roots bundled into metropolitan form. His New York Times obituary quotes him, “I was so humiliated by the fact that I was from the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp in the worst hookworm and rickets part of Georgia I could not bear to think of it. Everything I had written had been out of a fear and loathing for what I was and who I was.”

When Crews was a little boy, his mother left his abusive stepfather and came down to Jacksonville, found a job rolling King Edward cigars over at Swisher and Son. They moved into a shotgun house on Phoenix Avenue, northeast of Springfield. Young Harry wandered the neighborhood stealing hubcaps. He barely graduated from Andrew Jackson High School on Main Street. Nobody else in the family had made it that far.

In his 1978 memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, Crews writes, “Everything everywhere in the city was tainted, however faintly, with the odor of combustion.” Bacon County people, removed to Springfield and the Jacksonville Northside, missed the smells of the country. In the city, “They felt like animals in a pen.” Indeed, “The little shotgun row houses were waiting […] and the factories were waiting and [the people] knew their time was coming […] for them to fill the houses and offer themselves up to the factories.”

a still from A Day at the Zoo, early 1960s, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Meantime, the Jacksonville Zoo, which began in Springfield in 1914 and moved up to the north shore of the Trout River in 1925, had indeed endured hard times. In the late ’60s, Mayor Hans Tanzler appointed a special commission to find a way to keep the zoo open. By March 1975, The Florida Times-Union reported “drastic food cuts for most of its 900 animals.”

Citizens protested and veterinarians complained the primates’ food supply had been cut in half. The T-U reported, “[Zoo curator Doug] Dean said some of the smaller monkeys would probably die. In monkey colonies, the biggest and strongest get first choice and the smallest have to take the leavings, he said.”

a still from A Day at the Zoo, early 1960s, courtesy State Archives of Florida, floridamemory.com

Thus, Pete Butcher, the protagonist of Scar Lover, who lives in a Springfield boarding house and finds a job loading boxcars alongside a Rastafarian named George, whom the other workers call “the Burnt Nigger.” Pete’s trip to the Jacksonville Zoo echoes Enoch Emery’s visit to the Taulkinham, Georgia animal pens and “Muvseevum” in Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 Southern Gothic novel Wise Blood.

When Enoch drags the self-flagellating anti-prophet Hazel Motes to the MVSEVM, Motes looks angrily into an apparently empty cage. “Over in the corner on the floor of the cage, there was an eye. The eye was in the middle of something that looked like a piece of mop sitting on an old rag. He squinted close to the wire and saw that the piece of mop was an owl with one eye open. It was looking directly at Hazel Motes.”

Enoch said, “That ain’t nothing but a ole hoot owl. You seen them things before,” but Motes didn’t hear him. He was fixated elsewhere. “‘I AM clean,’ Haze said to the eye.’”

When Pete Butcher sees sad lions bunched in small cages in pools of urine and finds the yaks are nothing like oxen, he demands of a nearby old man, “Do these goddamn things look any better in the wintertime?” None of the parents had stopped their children from stoning the yaks. Mr. Winekoff sets Pete straight, tells him of the yaks, but maybe also of himself, “They are fine animals and a long way from home.”

Harry Crews, photo by Charles Postell, 1983

The zoo’s a place for animals on both sides of the fence. The apes look at us as we look at them. They don’t see the great distance we make sure we see. But you can tell what kind of person you’re dealing with by how he treats dogs and reacts to chimpanzees.

Meanwhile, mid-1975, the zoo did not ration food and leave primates to fight to the death. Instead, it hired a new president, laid off employees, began an adoption program in which adopting a polar bear or a ferret meant paying to feed the animal for a year, asked City Council for better funding, sold three jaguars to buy two cheetahs and traded bison for antelope.

3. Child is Father of the Man

It’s the humblest among us who can teach us most.

Gandai, image courtesy Jacksonville Zoo

“Suffer little children, and forbid them not,” Jesus said, “to come unto me,” and Wordsworth said, “The Child is father of the Man,” for the child the poet had been, rejoicing at rainbows, birthed the man who wrote the lines. “So be it when I shall grow old,” he proclaimed, “or let me die!” And so, lo! It’s Gandai the baby Western Lowland Gorilla who offers this non-story, this jumbled un-history, its redemption.

At the end of January, four month old Gandai smiled with a mouthful of teeth and weighed 10 pounds. Beth Reese Cravey of The Florida Times-Union reported that Gandai was “already sitting and crawling but has to master walking and the ability to hold on when being carried.”

Gandai, image courtesy Jacksonville Zoo

And the child gorilla might have said, if The Book of Isaiah had not: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

That child will not be Enoch Emery, nor old Mr. Winekoff. That child will never know the name Jiggs, nor the difference between yaks and oxen. That child will not see Jacksonville as the bridge between Bacon County, Georgia and the University of Florida, nor Harry Crews as nexus betwixt that child and Jiggs.

image courtesy Jacksonville Zoo

Before giving birth to Gandai, Kumbuka had lost two infants at a prior zoo when she couldn’t hear their “distress calls.” That’s because 22 year old Kumbuka is completely deaf.

When Kumbuka seemed not to know how to hold Gandai, zookeepers intervened, caring for the infant “like a mother would,” hoping to reach a point where Gandai developed sufficiently to reunite with her mother. Gandai would need to be able to “position herself” on her mother and approach the “habitat barrier” for feedings from humans. Soon Gandai was drinking milk from a bottle and eating soft solids like bananas and steamed sweet potatoes.

Gandai, image courtesy Jacksonville Zoo

Though zookeepers insisted Kumbuka “was never fully separated from the infant” and wasn’t “sad or angry,” a month later, Cravey wrote, Kumbuka hadn’t “shown sufficient care or interest in her baby.” When reintroduced, Kumbuka ignored the baby and became increasingly annoyed at Gandai’s approaches. It was time to intercede.

A 30 year old gorilla named Bulera loved the infant instantly. She held Gandai tenderly, carried her about in her arms, cuddled her, cooed to the baby lovingly. As zoo representative J.J. Vitale put it, Bulera held “the baby within minutes and comfort[ed] her with soft vocal rumbles.”

image courtesy Jacksonville Zoo

Zoos have changed since Crews wrote Scar Lover. Zookeepers work with a consciousness of the harm our species has wrought upon the planet, of the five great extinction periods of earth history and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-winning 2015 book The Sixth Extinction. The best zoo workers conscientiously face the sad irony that many species extinct in the wild would have disappeared entirely if zoos had not caged specimens. Doubly ironic, species like the Golden Lion Tamarin, the Arabian Oryx and the California Condor exist in the wild only because zoos have reintroduced them there.

All these considerations are too much to place on poor Gandai, who does not know her species is “critically endangered.” She learns to crawl on shaky arms and legs, leans into the warmth of her new mother, comforts herself by grasping the fingers of both hands together but also the toes, as dexterous as her fingers, of both feet. Bulera puts one big hand behind Gandai, scoops the baby close, then pats her rhythmically, soothingly on the back: You’re going to be okay. For you, there is no bigger picture to see. I’m here. Everything’s going to be alright. 

Bulera and Gandai, image courtesy Jacksonville Zoo