I found these postcards for sale recently and instantly decided I had to buy them. The postcards date from 1950 and they show a side of the St. Louis Zoo that I had never seen before. On seeing the picture showing chimps riding ponies, my first thought was is this real? I thought perhaps the postcards were only advertisements, played up for humor. Surely the chimpanzees did not actually ride ponies! But they did. I am guessing they also played piano. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), most of my research has already been done for me: Jody Sowell, historian at the Missouri History Museum wrote a blog on the history of chimpanzees at the Zoo back in 2010. Sowell talks about how famous the St. Louis Zoo chimps were—they appeared in Hollywood movies and in newspapers across the country.
Chimpanzees served as ambassadors for the Zoo and for the city, and they made frequent appearances at Zoo fundraisers and social events. Starting in the 1920s the Zoo used chimpanzees in shows. During that time, chimpanzees and orangutans were also used as ambassadors for the Zoo. A 1922 Post-Dispatch articles describes a dinner at the Zoo attended by 3000, at which two chimpanzees called Henry Kiel and Phil Brock (named after their contemporaries Mayor Kiel and Philip Brockman, the president of the Board of Police Commissioners) were the life of the party. Interestingly, articles from earlier in 1922 say that Philip Brockman bought his namesake for a thousand dollars from Borneo as a gift for the Zoo. In later years, chimpanzees not only attended events at the Zoo, but also went on trips around the city! Sowell’s blog talks about long-serving Zoo director George Vierheller taking chimps to the Fox Theatre to see themselves in a movie. But perhaps putting the chimps in the limelight so much didn’t rest well with everyone. In 1959 one Zoo chimp, Mr. Moke, who had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, was kidnapped by his concerned trainer, Robert Tomarchin. Tomarchin had taught Mr. Moke how to say “mamma” and “no,” much to the satisfaction of Director Vierheller. Tomarchin hid with Mr. Moke in Miami for a year and a half before he finally sent him back to St. Louis. Tomarchin only received probation for the kidnapping, but the episode may have been too much for Vierheller—he retired the next year after serving 36 years as zoo director. For some excellent pictures of Vierheller, go here. There are also some excellent clips online of the Zoo’s monkey show, which I’ve posted below.
British Pathé (1952):
CriticalPast (May 14, 1956):
Youtube User “Dirty D” (1967):
As society became more aware of the plight of primates in the wild in the late twentieth century, the Zoo shifted its focus from circus-like stage shows to straightforward conservation education. The change also corresponded with an increased public awareness of animal cruelty, especially with regard to animal research. The chimpanzee shows stopped in 1982—the lion show had already been phased out and the elephant shows would be stopped a few years later. Today the chimpanzees and other primates live more quietly inside large naturalistic dwellings. As far as I know, they do not attend banquets or star in movies.