by Tim Gilmore, 8/19/2022
“There’s a monkey sitting on that fence post back there!” So shouted Dee Dee’s brother Robby from the back seat one Sunday afternoon in 1968 and so begins Darlyn Finch Kuhn’s short story “Tarzan” from her 2007 book Red Wax Rose.
Their father expressed doubt. “‘Probably a buzzard,’ he muttered. Still, he threw the car into reverse, and slowly backed up on the overgrown grass, so as not to scare whatever the stooped-over blackish-brown thing was.”
The family car boated the Lundins across the mostly rural Northside of town on their usual after-church Sunday afternoon drive, Dee Dee’s nose buried in an “Illustrated Classics” edition of Heidi. Dee Dee still walked to her third grade class at Sherwood Forest Elementary School, but Robby, four years older – buzz cut, plaid shirt, corduroy pants – hopped the bus to junior high every day. If Robby said he saw a monkey, his little sister believed him.
As her father exited the car holding a beige windbreaker before him, Dee Dee watched, enthralled. Her mother worried, as mothers did. The monkey made a sound part grunt and part bark, hopped to the ground. “Bad move, if he wanted to escape,” Darlyn writes. “Daddy threw the jacket over the monkey and pounced like a linebacker from his favorite football team, the Green Bay Packers.”
Now the grunting barking gave way to squealing. “It was a terrible sound, much like a woman in one of my brother’s favorite Saturday TV movies, Frankenstein or The Mummy.”
When her mother returned to the scene after 15 minutes, having sped home to grab a garbage can, her father holding the squirming jacket to his belly, he “threw the bundle, jacket and all, into the garbage can and banged down the lid.”
Four decades later, Darlyn, no longer Dee Dee, writes, “‘You’ll have to drive, Anita,’ he said, ‘And hurry.’ Mama floored it as the monkey’s tin-muffled screeches filled the car.” In the back seat, Dee Dee and Robby looked gleefully into each other’s eyes. They had a pet monkey!
“So where do you think the monkey came from?” I ask Darlyn, as her husband Brad looks past the windshield of the johnboat over reflections of sky in the Trout River. Brad is the author, with Richard Vaux, of the 2019 book Dirty Work: The Untold Story of My Secret Mission to Steal Back TWA Flight 847 from Hezbollah. Darlyn’s best known work is her 2015 autobiographical novel Sewing Holes. Many of the people her characters are based on lived along these riverbanks.
The boat drifts alongside the tall grasses, the falling gray trunks of dead trees rising from the edges of the marsh like upreaching fingers, islands of pines and cedars heavily bearded with Spanish moss, and I can almost see the nth descendant of long-ago left-behind monkeys in the canopies. The legends generate themselves.
So how did this monkey end up on a fencepost beside the road that day in 1968? If he’d escaped somewhere, how long was his interval of freedom? Sherwood Forest, the subdivision where eight year old Dee Dee lived, nestles against the narrowing of the Trout River just a couple miles up from the Jacksonville Zoo. Small “roadside attractions” along both well-trafficked highways and ill-traveled byways frequently featured the sad sight of some “exotic” animal kept tight in a cage – an owl or a bobcat, occasionally a small bear, and yes, from time to time, a monkey. Then there’s the recurring mention of the monkeys that “colonized” the state from Silver Springs, the theme park that still offers glass-bottom boat rides.
Longleaf pines twin themselves on the sides of the Trout River, growing up toward the far distant clouds and down to their own watery reflections. This is that broken offshoot of a Florida both imaginary and as real as river muck. It’s the Florida of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan. It’s also the Florida where wild horses stomp alligators before these dinosaurs can drag a horse underwater, but where bloated and gentle and beautifully monstrous manatee swim unmolested. The only enemies of the “sea cow” are boat propellers and manmade chemicals.
Out on these waters, you can smell the earth composting itself. Once you get past the homeless camps and the dock with the Trump flag, the “Fuck Biden” flag and the Jesus flag, it’s easy to imagine these placid wilds a scene from a million years ago. While the end of the world is always upon us, the renewal of the earth is ever among us.
Dee Dee had hoped the new family monkey was a girl, in which case they should call her Jane, but Robby, who first spotted the monkey, said his name would be Tarzan. It made no sense. His name should at least be Cheetah, after the chimpanzee in the Tarzan movies filmed down at Silver Springs.
(In fact, Weismuller and Cheetah the Chimpanzee both lived to be 80, if you believe Debbie Cobb of Suncoast Primate Sanctuary just north of Clearwater, Florida. The human actor died in 1984 and a chimp the nonprofit claimed was “star of the Tarzan films” died on Christmas Eve, 2011. Experts were skeptical. Other chimpanzees had supposedly been the Hollywood actor too. If the Suncoast chimp were Cheetah, he’d have been perhaps the oldest chimpanzee ever recorded.)
Dee Dee’s father built Tarzan a backyard cage and their mother worried about rabies and read that monkeys ate bugs. At first Tarzan hid and trembled beneath a blanket in his cage, but as he grew less afraid, Bob Lundin cuffed him with a dog collar attached to a leash.
“Robby became famous at school as the boy who had a pet monkey,” Darlyn writes, “almost as famous as the boy down the street who’d lost his arm when he’d reached into a spinning washing machine” and ended up with a silver hook in place of a hand. “A pet monkey wasn’t quite as exciting as a hook-hand, but it came close.
“Eventually Mama let me play with Tarzan, even helping me dress the monkey in a faded blue doll’s dress, although the tail presented something of a problem, pushing up the back of the frock in a way that wasn’t modest at all. Robby got mad the first time he saw it in a dress, it being a boy-monkey and all, so after that Mama only let me play like Tarzan was my baby while Robby was elsewhere.”
Maybe five years before Dee Dee played dress-up with a monkey in a neighborhood named for Robin Hood, an 11 year old boy named Jordan Logue, dressed in his blue slacks, button-up white shirt smudged with grape jelly and crooked tie, talked to his friends at St. Paul’s Catholic School about the Riverside monkeys. Everybody said they came over from Silver Springs two hours south.
The question of how the monkeys came to Riverside, this turn-of-the-20th century neighborhood just southwest of Downtown, fostered much speculation. Some said they’d swum. Some said they’d come by boat, perhaps even commandeered it.
The monkeys seemed centered near Riverside Avenue and Copeland Street, Jordan told me half a century later: “There was a vacant lot, tall trees growing up through it, and lots of undergrowth, and all the kids in Riverside knew there were monkeys living in those trees.”
I wondered aloud to Jordan whether the kids heard barred owls and imagined them monkeys. Barred owls have more than a dozen calls and one sounds uncannily monkeyish. “It seems like,” Jordan said, pausing to think about it, “but I can’t remember whether I can really remember having heard or seen the Riverside monkeys, but I believed I did.”
I wonder if I saw macaques that golden Kodachrome autumn day in November 1978 when I was four years old and my parents took me to Silver Springs. I feel I could step into that photograph in its tourist card and inhabit the wonder and security of standing face to face with those gentle and unafraid deer, just my height, that my father and I fed from our hands. I try to step into the frame and look around behind it, but I find no monkeys there. Maybe they were piloting a glass-bottom boat toward Jax.
Much closer than Silver Springs, however, was the so-called “Monkey Farm,” the Yerkes Laboratory of Primate Biology just south of town in Clay County, where it operated from 1930 until it moved to Atlanta in 1965. No verification of escapes from the Monkey Farm exists, but the urban legends swarmed – stories of bands of escaped monkeys that terrorized the small town of Orange Park at night, of the breeding of a humanzee, a hybrid chimp and human being, of simian mutants resulting from radiation experiments.
The closest the region came to harboring a simian mutant may have been Dee Dee’s dressing Tarzan in a doll dress. The monkey often reminded Deedee’s childhood family that he was a wild animal though. As the boat floats near the cordgrasses and we listen to cicadas scream, Darlyn says if you were holding Tarzan but needed to put him down to go do something else, he’d let you know if he wasn’t ready. He’d wrap you tightly in the prehensile grasp of his tail, bark-burp-roar-chant-grunt at you and bare his teeth threateningly. The message was clear. If you didn’t keep playing with him, he’d bite you.
He treated the firefighters the same way. When the Lundins approached the driveway after church one Sunday, they found a red hook-and-ladder truck and a second fire engine parked in front of their house. Due to the cold, they’d moved Tarzan’s cage into the utility room, given him another old blanket, and rigged up a light.
Darlyn writes, “Robby took one look at the charred open door of the monkey’s cage and cried out, ‘Where’s Tarzan?’” The response “Is this who you mean?” came accompanied by laughter and teasing amongst the firefighters. “‘We can’t get him off,’ said the fireman, looking half-amused, half-scared.” Tarzan was wrapped tight, arms and legs and tail, “a panicky look in his eye.”
One firefighter said, “He’s stuck like glue,” another, “Every time we try to remove him, he gets real mad!” and another, “George has got himself a monkey-shirt!” The neighbor who saw the smoke and heard Tarzan screaming thought he’d heard a woman trapped in the house. Now George the firefighter was worried he’d have to have Tarzan “surgically removed.”
The comedic and loving overtones of Darlyn’s story screen its darker truths, as the sophistication in which we clothe ourselves hides from us the fact that we’re primates too. We’re earthlings, smarter apes but apes still. We practice law and architecture and domesticate our wilder impulses. When we grow violent, we call it “inhuman” and say, “Things like that don’t happen here,” trying to fool ourselves.
And we may be more violent than our ancient cousins who’ve for so long gotten a bad rap. In her 2020 book, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Art and Death, Rebecca Wragg Sykes points to ironic evidence that Neanderthals may have acted more civilized than modern homo sapiens. Meanwhile, Mia Farrow said her mother Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Jane in the original Tarzan films, used to call Cheetah “that bastard” because he bit her so often.
Based on all the photos of monkeys the Lundins perused, they guessed Tarzan was a capuchin, though they never saw a photo of a capuchin that looked quite like Tarzan. Researcher C. Jane Anderson thinks they were right. When I show her photos, she says, “Tarzan looks to have been a capuchin, although I’m not certain what species. I’m not aware of any populations of capuchins that have lived in Florida. However,” she adds, capuchins are one of the kinds of monkeys “folks tend to keep as pets.” She says the monkey the character Ross from the 1990s sitcom Friends kept was a capuchin. “I’d say there’s a good chance someone had the monkey as a pet and released it or it escaped.”
Over the past two centuries, more than 500 species of non-native flora and fauna have begun to call Florida home. A recent University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences study, co-authored by Anderson and four other experts, explains that five of those species are monkey species, three of which have established a breeding foothold in Florida: rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta), squirrel monkeys (Saimiri sp.), and vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus sabaeus).
A river boat captain named Colonel Spencer Tooey introduced Florida’s monkey progenitors at Silver Springs in the 1930s. A decade earlier, in his native Livingston County, New York, Tooey had made up “the legend of the Phantom Indian,” offering tourists aboard his Conesus Lake excursion boats the possibility of catching a glimpse of the phantom. To build his tourist trade in Florida, Tooey placed six rhesus macaques on a Silver River island, even built them a little wooden house. The macaques stayed on the island for about five minutes before swimming off into the subtropical forests and beginning their own Florida subculture.
Though six Tarzan movies were filmed at Silver Springs from 1932 to 1942, beginning with Tarzan the Ape Man, and though various stories over the years like The New York Times’s August 30, 1971 “‘Tarzan’ Monkeys Roam Florida” claimed moviemakers left the monkeys behind, Florida primatologists have said for decades that Florida’s monkeys did not descend from the Tarzan sets. Debbie Cobb at Suncoast Primary Sanctuary even claimed Johnny Weismuller himself sold her grandparents Cheetah the Chimp around 1960. Primatologists say the Tarzan link to Florida’s monkeys, however, is pure folklore.
When Colonel Tooey’s monkeys’ descendants had thriven into a population of hundreds by the ’80s, private trappers began capturing the macaques and selling them for biomedical research. A University of Florida anthropologist argued that wild monkeys in Florida were a good thing, since you could study them in the wild right here. Urban legends of monkeys raiding picnics from Ocala to Palatka and dodging cars on highways ran amok. Anthropologist Linda Wolfe knew dozens of Florida’s rhesus macaques by name.A September 14, 1986 Orlando Sentinel story caught her boat “free-floating just a few feet off the south bank [of the Silver River], where the eyes of about a hundred monkeys gaze steadily at her.” They perched in trees and stood on cypress knees. She noted Antoinette, Moses, Susan, Edward and Van Gogh, the macaque with the missing ear. She saw that “Leslie 82 [had] kidnapped her sister Leslie 81’s baby again.”
About a thousand of Tooey’s monkeys’ descendants made their way from Florida’s wilds to research experimentation over the next 20 years, with protestors picketing at Silver Springs, until finally macaque poaching was banned in 2012. Whether Silver Springs monkeys made it to Jacksonville by the 1960s, as local kids believed, is doubtful. Six decades later, a park ranger tells Jax-based sculptor Aisling Millar that monkeys in the Ocala National Forest descended from the original Tarzan movies have spread out to the point that “wild monkeys could be living in the Jacksonville area in the next two to three years.” Like monkey populations, once misinformation gets out, there’s almost no way to reclaim it.
Meanwhile, tales of escaped monkeys have populated Florida newspapers for more than a century. In November 1943, local papers reported a Jacksonville woman’s pet monkey had swallowed her wartime gasoline ration coupons. Three years later, the Associated Press reported that Jacksonville police were looking for a “monkeynapper after C.R. Dust reported somebody stole his pet simian, which he had tied on his front porch.”
In 1982, The Naples [Florida] Daily Times reported that a pet monkey who bit his owner’s neighbor tested negative for rabies. “A 1973 study reported 17 proven cases of rabid monkeys in Florida during the previous 40 years,” the story said, but also quoted Dr. William Cox, of the Collier County Health Department, saying that 700 autopsies had been conducted on Florida monkeys in the previous decade and that all had tested negative. “In 1911,” the Daily Times said, “a monkey in Jacksonville was bitten by a rabid dog and developed rabies.”Then in 2020, the conservative tabloid The New York Post headlined a typically lurid and largely inaccurate story, “Roving Band of Herpes-Ridden Monkeys Now Roaming Northeast Florida.” The story began, “Forget Florida Man. Now there’s Florida monkeys.” Sky Lebron of WJCT News, Jacksonville’s National Public Radio affiliate, reported the story more responsibly, saying, “Although reports have stated the monkeys can carry Herpes B, there have been no reports of people’s contracting it from them” and that primatologists said “infections of Herpes B came purely from laboratory settings.”
Kari Bagnall of Gainesville’s Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary told Lebron, “They don’t go after humans,” but added, “If you harass them, they’re going to protect their families, just like anyone would.” Besides, it’s our fault they’re here and Florida’s a wild place. “It’s no different than a bear, or a Florida panther, or an alligator or crocodile,” researcher Bobby Collins told Lebron. “You see them out there in the environment, leave them alone.”
How Tarzan Lundin fit into these stories and studies and rumors and scandal sheet headlines, wherever he came from, whatever plans he had for his day of escape when he lifted the latch on his cage that morning in 1968, he was not rabid or “herpes-ridden,” just frustrated and curious. The Lundins had moved from Sherwood Forest to Trout River Boulevard and Tarzan needed to scout the location. At least he met “a nice Southern lady.”
So says Bonnie King. “That monkey could have choked her by the neck and my mother would have said, ‘Oh honey, it’s okay.’” She laughs every time she thinks about it. “My mother was this very sweet, very mannered Southern lady,” she explains.
“Your monkey is in my house!” is the way Bonnie’s mother delivers the news in Darlyn’s story, wearing a black turtleneck dress, high heels and pearls. Darlyn and Bonnie didn’t grow up together, since Bonnie was a couple grades ahead, but recently they began comparing childhood notes, entirely by accident, and discovered they had Tarzan the Monkey in common. Here’s how their versions of the story work split-screen:
Darlyn: “Miz Jenkins laughed. ‘Well, I saw him sitting at the sliding glass door, looking like a Peeping Tom, and I didn’t want him to run into the road, so I opened the door, thinking I could just pick him up and take him home.’”
Bonnie: “She just cracked the door and the next thing she knew, that monkey had torn up her drapes.”
Darlyn: “We arrived at Miz Jenkins’ pristine brick house, slipped in the front door and there was Tarzan, sitting on top of her upholstered cornice board, looking pleased with himself.”
Bonnie: “And Darlyn said, ‘I remember your mother, Margie Jenkins, who was so sweet and kind while our monkey was destroying her interior decorating.’”
Darlyn: “I chirruped, ‘C’mere, Tarzan,’ and he jumped to the floor near my feet. Mama swooped in with the crab net, trapping him inside.”
Bonnie: “Back in the 1960s, we had blood red carpet, drapes with gold trim and sheers behind them, these gorgeous and very expensive drapes, and French Provençal furniture. My parents had just remodeled their home, rebuilt it into a two-story, and had completely redone the whole downstairs.”
Darlyn: “I thought I saw tears well up in Mama’s eyes. ‘We’ll pay for some new sheers, of course,’ she offered.’
“Miz Jenkins winked at Mama. ‘I’ve been wanting to replace those old things,’ she said. ‘Now I have a good excuse. We’ll split the cost.’”
The copper teapot started screaming, but Ms. Jenkins hadn’t turned on the burner. Everybody looked at Tarzan in Dee Dee’s arms.
Out on the water, all these years later, we putter over by the dock behind the 1924 house on Trout River Terrace that Bonnie and her husband Charlie recently restored. Bonnie comes out, we wave from a distance, then shout our hellos. Margie Jenkins died in 1988 and Bonnie says she’s delighted whenever she hears stories that bring out her mother’s personality. We pass old brick houses on the way back, and back decks and old gables and screened-in sleeping porches. We pass one of those strange rounded houses built by the outsider architect King Solomon Rathel.
I ask Darlyn what she thinks happened to Tarzan. As he’d grown more frustrated, more brazen, he’d bitten her brother’s thumb, and Dee Dee’s father “released” him back into the northern Duval County wilderness. I ask her if “release” is a euphemism, but she doesn’t think so. Her parents had been transparent about having butchered the cattle the family raised from calves. She says he wasn’t one to “sugar coat things.”
Says C. Jane Anderson, “Moral of these types of stories – folks should do a whole lot of research before attempting to keep a non-domesticated species and ensure they have all necessary permits. Also, if people do decide to take on exotic pets, they should have a plan in place in case they find they can no longer keep them. Exotic pets should never, ever be released into the wild. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hosts the Exotic Pet Amnesty Program, which allows folks to hand over exotic pets, no questions asked.”
I can’t help but imagine Tarzan’s loneliness after the family who’d brought him into their home abandoned him. Or perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps he felt liberated, a vagabond free in the landscape, declaring with Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” that “From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines, / Going where I list, my own master total and absolute.”
I’d like to end this story the way Darlyn Finch Kuhn ends hers, but I’ve given away too much of her charming short story already and I do hope you’ll buy a copy of her book. So I’ll return to an earlier point in the story instead and end with Dee Dee’s mother Anita’s dry joke, a joke dependent on a particularly Southern pronunciation. As her father built Tarzan a cage, her mother read from Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedia that monkeys ate insects and spiders and bananas and raisins and carrots and nuts. When her father said, “So what kind of monkey is it?” her mother responded, “Might be a spider or a squirrel monkey, but I’m betting it’s a ka-PEW-shun, from the smell.”