Thursday, February 19, 2009
Mr. Jiggs and the Cold Hard Truth
This photo of Mr. Jiggs is by Michael Nichols from Brutal Kinship, a book by Nichols and Jane Goodall.
So the news story about the pet chimpanzee that attacked a woman in Connecticut has me thinking about my ol’ pal Mr. Jiggs.
Mr. Jiggs was a very famous chimp. He starred in many, many commercials, movies and bar mitzvahs in his 30+ years as a performer. He was written about by no less than Jane Goodall in her heartbreaking book Visions of Caliban (co-authored with Dale Peterson.) He had a lovely profile in the New Yorker in the mid-80s.
My paternal grandparents lived in Park Ridge, New Jersey. I spent months each summer there and every Christmas break, as the Velma family made its Ma & Pa Kettle journey cross-country to go to the place my parents always called “home.” (As a child I wondered what to call our ever-changing residences, since they were clearly not “home.”)
Park Ridge defies what most non-Easterners think of as New Jersey…it’s non-industrial, mall-free, treed and fairly affluent. Not only are my unhinged parents products of this environ, but also The Roches and Karen Duffy. More notably, the borough of Park Ridge had two august neighbors in the form of Richard Nixon (who lived in Saddle River) and Mr. Jiggs of Hillsdale. As a child, I was infinitely more interested in Mr. Jiggs, although my parents would occasionally drive by Nixon’s estate and command us kids to glare.
When we would go see my Aunt Marge (who was not an aunt…discuss) we would sometimes see Mr. Jiggs outside his house. He was a 190-lb. chimpanzee who lived in Hillsdale with his trainer, Ron Winter. He had a swing in the yard, and would sometimes sit on the porch and wave. The very best was when we would see him riding around on his custom motorcycle.
In reading about the chimp attack in Connecticut, I did a little research, or what passes for research in the days of Google, on Mr. Jiggs. He had a truly remarkable career and seemed to be deeply loved by his owner. Ms. Goodall and Mr. Peterson describe his life as apparently joyous, albeit profoundly artificial. Some disturbing facts, however: Mr. Jiggs was actually Ms. Jiggs. (Apparently girl chimps just aren’t as funny, i.e. Michelle Bachman.) Mr. Jiggs had had his front teeth pulled. And most upsetting, Mr. Jiggs lived each and every day in a metal vest and collar that could deliver electric shocks from Mr. Winter, should the need arise. Mr. Jiggs, for all his gleeful appearance, lived a life of gender dysphoria with cold metal and a swift jolt at the ready, should his true nature emerge.
It’s like when you get close to a college cheerleader – what seems so fresh-faced and innocent at a distance is actually a half-inch layer of suntan Max Factor covering cystic acne and sweat.
The seamy verities of owning wild animals ain’t cute, Lone Reader.