Maneuvering Moats for Marshmallows: The Great Polar Bear Escape of ’69

For International Polar Bear Day, I’d like to recount an entertaining story I recently stumbled upon while researching zoo history. And you will be happy to know that I can call it entertaining because no people or animals were hurt in this escape story. And who doesn’t enjoy an entertaining, benign escape story?

For a zoo employee, no day is ever the same—you never know what challenges or rewards you will face on a daily basis. But imagine coming to work and finding seven polar bears pillaging a concession stand, chowing down on sugary goodies. That’s exactly what happened on the wet, soggy morning of July 17, 1969.

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The Brookfield Zoo, located in suburban Chicago, prides itself on being the first zoo in the United States to incorporate cageless, moated exhibits. These natural settings were a request from Edith Rockefeller McCormick (daughter of John D. Rockefeller), who donated 83 acres of land for the specific purpose of creating a modern, innovative zoo modeled after the cageless exhibits she admired in Europe. Zoo construction began in 1926 but was halted during the Great Depression; the zoo finally officially opened in 1934. Not only did it gain international recognition for its moated exhibits, but it was also the first zoo in America to house giant pandas (Su-Lin arrived in 1937), which drew millions of visitors through its gates during its first decade of operation.

The moated grotto exhibits, often cited as favorites, gave visitors an unobstructed look at the animals and allowed them to throw food to the begging bears—a very common practice at zoos in those days. In fact, the Brookfield Zoo had a concession stand right across from the polar bear enclosure that sold marshmallows for bear feedings in addition to human treats. The polar bears could watch that stand every day, all day in hopes that visitors spent their coins on goodies for them.

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Polar bears begging for treats in their moated enclosure at the Brookfield Zoo. Photo: http://circusnospin.blogspot.com/2011/07/ghost-exhibits-brookfield-zoos-polar_21.html

The moats and marshmallow combo worked out well for the bears and visitors entertainment-wise, but the zoo wasn’t prepared for what happened in the summer of ’69.

Between the evening of July 16 and the early morning hours of July 17, Chicago experienced torrential downpours. Flooding was so bad that even the deep moats in the polar bear exhibit flooded, creating a pool instead of a barrier. The seven (yes, SEVEN!) very smart polar bears were able to swim out of their enclosure and made a bear-line right for the refreshment stand that had taunted them every day for years.

When employees arrived the early morning of the 17th before the zoo opened, the bears had already broken the concession stand windows and had finished the supply of marshmallows. They had moved on to the stash of ice cream and chips, as well as tossing around a cash register.

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A photo of the damaged cash register accompanied the front-page headline story in the Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1969.

When approached by the zoo employees, five of the bears immediately swam back into their enclosure. One had run over to say hello to the grizzly bears, who wanted no part in a cordial visit from their neighbor. The other bear made a run for the zoo restaurant, but guards, using vehicles with sirens and horns and firing a few shotgun blasts in the air, were able to redirect it back towards the polar bear exhibit. The bears didn’t need to be tranquilized, but the guards were prepared to do so if necessary. The local fire department was immediately called in to pump out the flooded water while the bears were kept busy with more marshmallows.

The incident made the national news, and a children’s book, The Marshmallow Caper, was written about it. It was also the first time in the zoo’s history that the gates had to close, as it is normally open 365 days a year. Luckily it was an event that could be looked back on with chuckles instead of tragic evocation. Keeper Jim Rowell remembered, “It sounds funny now, but any time an animal escapes it can turn into a nightmare.”

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I could not find any details about modifications the Brookfield Zoo made to prevent the bears from escaping again, but the zoo did end the sale of marshmallows and prohibited animal feedings in 1970. Sorry, bears.

Da Bears 1, Humans 1.

Sources

“Brookfield Zoo (Chicago Zoological Park).” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Edited by Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/172.html

Deuchler, Douglas, and Carla W. Owens. Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society. Images of America Series. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.

Krizmis, Patricia. “After Deluge, 7 Bears Find Way to Marshmallow ‘Eden’.” Chicago Tribune (July 18, 1969): 1:

“Polar Bears at Illinois Zoo Swim Moat, Devour Snack Stand Sweets.” Washington Post (July 19, 1969): A3.

“Polar Bears Swim Zoo Moat to Feast on Marshmallows.” New York Times (July 18, 1969): 35.

“Zoo Escapes Funny in Retrospect.” Bangor Daily News (November 21, 1992), https://archive.bangordailynews.com/1992/11/21/great-zoo-escapes-funny-in-retrospect/

 

Hippo Hippo Burnin’ Love

There might be a “big” reason that Valentine’s Day and National Hippo Day are back-to-back (February 14 and 15). After all, what greater romance involves nearly 14,000 pounds? Such was the case at the National Zoo—the love story of Arusha and Joe Smith, the Nile hippo couple who spent 25 years together in the Elephant House . . . and raised 18 calves!

The mighty Arusha was born in 1952 in Tanzania and arrived at the National Zoo in June of 1955 as an 865-pound three-year-old. Shortly thereafter, Joe Smith arrived in DC, still a baby at six months old but immediately inaugurating hopes for future baby hippos at the zoo.

After establishing their bond early in life and maturing into adulthood together, Arusha gave birth to their first calf in June of 1959. This event shocked everyone—no one at the zoo knew that she was expecting! Thus began their successful dive into parenthood.

Scientific name: [Hippopotamus amphibius]
Arusha, Joe Smith, and baby, February 1973. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives
After the first-born, according to the Washington Post, Arusha gave birth every year through 1967 (the gestation period for hippos is eight months). That year, so high was the zoo’s confidence in her ability to bear healthy offspring that her calf was donated to Chile ever before it was born. Arusha did not disappoint.

She is not a pretty mother, but she is infallibly fertile, and she and Joe get along.

—Phil Casey, Washington Post, May 24, 1967

The only time that Arusha and Joe were separated was during the first week or so after each birth. Arusha was a protective mother, so Joe was moved out of Arusha and the calf’s space so that they could bond alone—and also so that the matriarch couldn’t rough Joe up. He understood very well that Arusha was the boss, so most of the time he knew when not to get too close. When she finally entrusted him with babysitting, Arusha would let him know when it was his time to give her a break from parenting. According to a keeper, Joe would even carry hay to Arusha so that she could dine in her pool. What a sweet guy!

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Arusha with baby Susan in 1976. After weaning, Susan was sent to Singapore Zoo as a symbol of friendship between the U.S. and Singapore. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Arusha and Joe’s accomplishments set a record for the number of Nile hippo births in captivity. Perhaps they benefited from something in the Elephant House water. In that same building, Billy made the National Zoo famous for its successful pygmy hippopotamus breeding. Formally named William Johnson Hippopotamus, Billy was a gift to President Calvin Coolidge in 1927, and until his death in 1955 he had sired 18 little gumdrops between mates Hannah and Matilda (yes, they were all named Gumdrop [followed by Roman numerals]—and interestingly all but one were female!). According to the zoo, the lineage of most pygmy hippos living in captivity in the United States today can be traced back to virile Billy. (After successfully breeding a whopping 52 of them, the National Zoo no longer has pygmy hippos, as the last of them were transferred to other zoos with the renovation of the Elephant House in 2009.)

Arusha and Joe’s offspring were offered to other zoos worldwide shortly after weaning due to space constraints. The one exception was Happy (nicknamed “Joe Jr.” by the keepers), born January 4, 1981—a few months after father Joe sadly passed away. (I could not find any information about the cause of death. Most news coming out of the zoo at that time focused on the fervent yet disappointing attempts at breeding Ling-Ling the giant panda.)

Happy’s arrival seemed to help Arusha recover from the loss of Joe. Before Happy, Arusha would watch the hippo tank and react to any noise, possibly anticipating Joe’s return. The Washington Post noted that she seemed to be “quite listless.” One other behavior she picked up after her mate’s death was his ritual of bellowing just before the zoo’s closing time. It was if he was announcing to the visitors that it was time to leave. Never having participated before, Arusha resumed his tradition, with the keepers’ prediction that she would continue until Happy would become old enough to take over.

Arusha and son Happy remained together at the National Zoo until Arusha’s death in 2004 at the age of 52. Happy lived solo but was certainly spoiled by his keepers. “He gets two meals a day. He has ceiling fans, skylights, spray showers, an exotic mural on his walls, as well as two pools,” reported the Washington Post. Happy was a favorite of keeper John Taylor, who was exceptionally sad to see him depart for the Milwaukee County Zoo in 2009, as plans to expand the elephant habitat did not include a home for hippos at the National Zoo.

Although he hasn’t followed his father’s fertile footsteps, Happy is currently living in Milwaukee with a female friend, Patti, and doing well. The handsome guy celebrated his 38th birthday last month.

Happy the hippo at Milwaukee County Zoo. Photos from the zoo’s Facebook page.

How can you really top the love story of Happy’s parents? Given his regular love letters to the famous Fiona at the Cincinnati Zoo, Timothy the hippo in San Antonio is certainly trying! Stay tuned. . . .

Sources

“Baby Hippo Is a Double Surprise at Zoo.” Washington Post, June 2, 1959: A5.

Campbell, Mary A. “Hippo Hooray!” Washington Post, April 22, 1981. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1981/04/22/hippo-hooray/4d8d516b-7d47-4065-9fc3-8f7f9b73c35b/

Casey, Phil. “Estela (Maybe) Is an Impressive Infant.” Washington Post, May 24, 1967: B1.

Oman, Anne H. “Hippo Day: Just One Long Bath.” Washington Post, November 9, 1979. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1979/11/09/hippo-day-just-one-long-bath/c6afc903-b573-4b54-98e7-2d9ebdf71bc5/

Roby, Marguerite. “Goody Goody Gumdrops.” Smithsonian Archives blog, September 25, 2012. https://siarchives.si.edu/blog/goody-goody-gumdrops

Ruane, Michael E. “Zoo’s Hippo Must Hit the Road; Elephant Program Expanding; Keeper Already Feeling Huge Loss.” Washington Post, August 3, 2008: C1.

Ruane, Michael E. “For Happy the Hippo, Moving from Washington to Milwaukee Has Been a Pleasure.” Washington Post, November 12, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/11/AR2009111115683.html

Smithsonian Institution. 1955 Annual Report. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1955smit

Smithsonian Institution. 1957 Annual Report. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1957smit

Smithsonian Institution. 1959 Annual Report. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1959smit

Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Pygmy hippo fact sheet. https://web.archive.org/web/20071114022909/http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/AfricanSavanna/factpygmyhippo.cfm

Thomson, Peggy. Keepers and Creatures at the National Zoo. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.

“Zoo Gives Hippo to Japan and Gets Rare Lions.” Smithsonian Torch, November 1976. https://siarchives.si.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/torch/Torch%201976/SIA_000371_1976_10.pdf

“Zoo’s Female Hippopotamus Dies at 52.” Washington Post, August 26, 2004: B3. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A33720-2004Aug25.html

Bimbo’s Miraculous Reunion 

To say that the Wells family was shocked to discover that Bimbo was living just a few miles away at the National Zoo is a serious understatement. Kenneth and Margaretta Wells, along with their two children, had spent four years in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where the Reverend Dr. Kenneth served as headmaster of the Prince Royal’s College, a Presbyterian missionary school. They returned to the United States in 1951, making the DC area their home.

While living in Thailand, the Wells family adopted a black white-handed gibbon named Bimbo, who loved playing with the Wells children and students at the school, generating laughs with her antics, and tormenting the neighborhood pets. She developed a fondness for fresh pineapple and expensive British chocolates and would join the Wells family for waffle breakfasts. (It would take her days to lick all of the syrup out of her fur!) Bimbo was family.

A home video by the Wells family. Bimbo appears at the beginning of the clip. Source: Presbyterian Historical Society

After four years in Thailand, it was time for the Wellses to return to the United States. Unable to take Bimbo with them, the heartbroken Wells family arranged for the gibbon to live with friends, with the understanding that if they could not care for her that they would find her a good, loving home. They tearfully said their goodbyes to Bimbo and Thailand.

Fifteen months later, when the daily Washington Post arrived at the Wells’s home in Arlington, Virginia, Kenneth showed his family a large photo of a gibbon that accompanied a story about new arrivals from Thailand at the National Zoo. “That looks like Bimbo,” he commented. His eighteen-year-old daughter exclaimed that it HAD to be Bimbo—“No other gibbon looks like Bimbo!” Roberta’s mother told her not to get her hopes up too high, that there is a very slim chance that it was actually Bimbo—after all, Thailand was full of black gibbons. Their curiosity highly peaked, the Wells family enthusiastically journeyed into the city to visit the new zoo arrival.

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A photo of a gibbon that appeared in the April 24, 1952 edition of the Washington Post. The gibbon was part of a shipment of animals from Thailand purchased by the National Zoo. Was it Bimbo?

Their initial attempts to engage with the gibbon proved unsuccessful due to heavy crowds. Not giving up, the next day Kenneth contacted Ernest P. Walker, the assistant director of the zoo. Wells recounted their story and inquired about the possibility of meeting the gibbon early in the morning before the crowds descended upon the zoo. Agreeing but dubious, Walker explained that the gibbon was indeed purchased from a dealer in Bangkok, but that he was unaware of how the gibbon would have made its way from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to Bangkok near the coast—a 400-mile distance. Could it really be Bimbo?

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On a Friday morning, the Wells family met Walker at the Small Mammal House. Clutching a tin of pineapple and a box of chocolates, the children began calling out to the gibbon with the endearing coos that they used back in Thailand. But would she remember after fifteen months and in a completely different setting? Bimbo immediately started crying and attempted to hug Roberta through the bars. She then gobbled down her favorite, familiar treats. Roberta asked Walker if she could enter the enclosure to make sure there was no question of Bimbo’s identity; Walker agreed, offering safety warnings. Within seconds of the Wellses entering the gibbon space, Bimbo latched onto both children tightly and cried softly. Everyone was in tears. Roberta then rubbed Bimbo just under her eyebrows—a gesture that gibbons normally despise but Bimbo grew to love. Bimbo refused to let go of them. That was enough to convince Walker. (He did draw the line at using waffles and syrup as proof.)

That is the first time I’ve seen a gibbon enjoying English creams. She is yours without a doubt.

—Ernest P. Walker, assistant director of the National Zoological Park

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Bimbo hugs and kisses the Wells children. Photo: National Geographic

The story of this amazing reunion attracted national press. The Wells family returned to the zoo for a photo shoot, and Margaretta Wells penned an article about the reunion, which appeared in the July 1953 issue of National Geographic. (This article includes thirteen fantastic photos of the Wells family with Bimbo.) Visitors flocked to the Small Mammal House to catch a glimpse of the celebrity gibbon.

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A paragraph that appeared in the July 3, 1953 edition of the Washington Post.

The Wells family enjoyed regular visits with Bimbo. She often had to forgo her chocolate treats with other gibbons lurking, but I’m sure knowing that her “family” was close it made her life at the National Zoo, half a world from her homeland, a much happier one.

Sources

“Arlington Family, Former Pet Reunited by Picture in Post.” Washington Post (June 15, 1953), p. 15.

“Kenneth and Margaretta Wells, and Bimbo.” Presbyterian Historical Society blog, March 9, 2017. https://www.history.pcusa.org/blog/2017/03/kenneth-and-margaretta-wells-and-bimbo

Sampson, Paul. “Suggestion for Fun: Take Your Family to the Zoo.” Washington Post (July 3, 1953): 17.

Wells, Margaretta Burr. “The Ape with Friends in Washington.” National Geographic (July 1953), pp. 61–74.

“Zoo Receives Birds, Animals From Thailand.” Washington Post (April 24, 1952): 3.