Goodbye to Monkey Island
The fog starts to burn off on a typical morning at the San Francisco Zoo, sometime in 1981. Jane Tollini stands at the top of Monkey Island, hose in one hand, bottle of disinfectant in the other. She is low person on the totem pole, and this is part of her brand-new job at the zoo -- hosing the shit of 70 spider monkeys from the concrete structure into a filthy moat below. And Lord Jesus does it stink, a foul, dizzying infiltration that burns every inch of the way from the nostrils down into the lungs. Zoo employees say that the worst-smelling shit in the animal kingdom is from monkeys (along with cats and humans, thank you very much).
"It got kind of Zen though," remembers Tollini, a former monkey keeper now working in penguins, "getting the poop to run down a certain way."
Primate poop runs down the slopes of this miniature Matterhorn no more, however. Crowds will no longer gather to watch a spirited game of monkey chase, or observe a mother nurse its tiny infant on a rock in the sun. Today, Monkey Island is to be demolished. The giant LS-4300 steam shovel with tank treads and an evil-looking bucket sits silently in the moat like a coiled snake, waiting for the signal to strike.
A crowd of zoo employees in forest-green work clothes and wader boots gathers around the coffeepot in front of the island, munching brownies, reminiscing, and eyeing an island-shaped cake decorated with red plastic monkeys. Somewhere in the afterlife, a thousand furry little monkey paws wipe back the tears.
Ever since the 1989 Loma Prieta quake damaged the underground access tunnel, Monkey Island has been closed. The spider monkeys in residence at the time were shipped to a Texas facility called Primarily Primates, where the colony flourishes to this day. Repairing the damage would cost upward of a half-million dollars, so zoo officials agreed to raze the mountain.
Built in 1937 as part of the WPA, the open-air exhibit "was state-of-the-art at the time," according to zoo employee David Robinett. Chambers inside the concrete slab were heated with a circulating water system, a common design shared by monkey islands at zoos in London, Berlin, and Milwaukee. Unfortunately, the design also made it hard to maintain cleanliness, keep disease and parasites to a minimum, or isolate an animal if it was sick. Drainage, ventilation, and heating began to deteriorate over the years, as did the concrete itself.
"Now it's basically a symbol of failure," says Robinett quietly.
But in its heyday, Monkey Island was one of the zoo's most memorable areas in which to work. The staff was constantly challenged to think one step ahead of the simians. Nancy Rumsey, now in charge of the koalas, remembers any entrance into the exhibit from the tunnel was often downright dangerous, because the monkeys "were waiting there with their butts hanging over," trying to piss and shit on the humans. The playful animals would often steal a keeper's cleaning bottle, or snatch a hat off someone's head.
"You gotta kinda think like a monkey," explains Tollini, who, in addition to being a penguin keeper, is also a guide for the zoo's Valentine's Day sex tour, which stars Jack the tapir, a squat, piglike animal of prodigious endowment.
Over the years, employees named many of the monkeys after celebrities such as the Gabor sisters, the Three Stooges, and the Marx Brothers. Keeper Martin Dias, known as the King of Monkey Island, conducted night tours onto the island, wearing a tuxedo and carrying a garden rake painted gold. Now retired, Dias moonlights as an usher at the opera, showing well-dressed monkeys to their seats, but says even today, the gorillas still recognize him.
The moment of truth grows nearer. (Actual demolition began an hour earlier by Live 105 stuntman Chuck Farnham, dressed in an ape costume, who climbed to the simian summit and banged on the concrete with a sledgehammer. Despite warnings from zoo management, Farnham then shed the suit live on the air, accompanied by screams from Public Relations Director Nancy Chan, who admits she was reacting more to the sight of Farnham's formidable stomach than his full nudity.)
After zoo director David Anderson gives a short speech, Chan signals a guy to begin a snare drum roll. The steam shovel roars to life; its sharp-toothed bucket opens wide, hovers over Monkey Island, then sinks its fangs into the side and pulls down a chunk of debris. As the drummer hits a small cymbal, the crowd cheers and applauds. Some employees exchange hugs, others simply turn away, overcome with sentiment.
A few former monkey keepers watch silently from distant areas of the zoo. They didn't want to get too close.
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