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.

22 comments:

Stephen said...

I had the pleasure of seeing Mr.Jiggs when I was a child. At the time it was very entertaining and fun. Seeing him ride a minibike and smoking was something from a Hollywood movie. I will never forget Mr.Jiggs or the way he had the whole room on their feet.I am 41 now and wish I could go back and see him again.

Stephen said...

I was unaware of the facts behind the chimp. It is sad to see an animal abused for the entertainment of the masses. A wild animal will always retain the natural instinct it was born with. Although I will always remember the night Mr. Jiggs made me laugh, I now wish he(she) had a life in the jungle throwing poop at humans who got too close.

John said...

Weird. I just Googled Mr. Jiggs because I saw something on Weird NJ and it got me thinking. I now live in Tacoma, WA but I was born at Pascack Hospital and lived in Park Ridge down the street from the cement factory (at least that's what I think it was). I remember Mr. Jiggs lived only down the street and would swing outside on his swing and smoke cigs. No one ever believes me about this but now I don't feel as crazy. I thought he had a local access tv show also back in the day but I could be wrong.

Anonymous said...

Believe it or not when I was about 15 in 1975 I was hitchhiking on Van Emburgh Ave. In Washington Twp where I lived next to Immaculate Heart school. A Winnebago pulled over and a chimpanzee opened the door! I smoked a lot of weed back then and I was laughing my *SS off. He got back in the passenger seat, put on his seat belt, and they dropped me off in front of my house.

Anonymous said...

I met "Mr. Jiggs" in the early 70's while I was working a part-time job in high school for the electronics firm that made the training collar. I was horrified when my employers and someone whom I presume was the keeper introduced me while at the same time giving the poor thing a little zotz with the collar so that it let out a shriek and showed its teeth.

Anonymous said...

When I was around 12 or 13 years old I used to ride to a friends house near Mr Jiggs . I was so sorry to hear about how he was treated because he was kind to me and provided 100's of hours of amusement to my buddies, I know have reevaluated why he used the restraint and if that crazy woman had protection in place the lovely lady would not of been harmed .They are not house pets. I met Jane Goodall last week she fine she kept a distance someone should have got that chimp out of that crazy womans house.

Anonymous said...

I still tell Mr. Jiggs stories to my kids, especially when I got hit in the head by Mr. Jiggs' chimp hands while she was roller skating around the all-purpose room at Green Knoll Elementary School in Bridgewater. Now that was entertainment!

Dina said...

I just saw this post looking for photos of mr jiggs for a post I am going to write. My parents hired him for my 4th birthday party and it was a blast, of course now that I am older I understand more about chimps and their use for entertainment. Part of my blog post is a book review for Bonobo Handshake.

Alana said...

I too remember Mr. Jiggs. I loved watching him on his outdoor swing and acting so "human" After moving from New Jersey years ago, I often wondered what became of him. I always thought he was little too calm for a wild animal and assumed he was medicated. He seemed to be happy and sadly finding out the truth now, is so sad. I now am able to tell my grandkids the story of how talented he was.

nancyori said...

I worked with Jiggs for about 2-3 months as a promotion to sell cameras for Keystone back in the early 70's. I have lots of photos of him/her and used to travel with Ron and Jiggs to camera store and mall events. To say my life was a bit of a circus would be an understatement. I first met him in NYC at an ad agency when he came bursting into the large room on his motor cycle and rode around the table. What a hoot. Since he was going to be my promotional tool, everyone at first was saying how cute it was going to be for me to hold him and have customers take our picture together. Boy were they wrong. Jiggs could of held me! It was a fun time in my life.

tshirts said...

The Michelle Bachmann comment sounded queenie and bitchy -- it ruined the whole piece. It started out interesting and quickly became cuntish.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Jiggs performed in the 1970's at the Elk's club in Bloomfield, NJ for the handicapped childrens christmas party. I never forgot him and how many laughs I got watching him smoke and DRINK!!! He was hysterical!!!!

transplantwest said...

I lived next door to Mr.Jiggs for over 4 years in Ramysey N.J. Ron treated her wonderfully, as well as you can treat a wild animal in the suburbs. You didn't dare stand under the tree in the yard if she was up there. Though toilet trained, in the tree she's do what wild chimps do. The grooming they do is a bonding activity, as well as functional. Roles, relationships and pecking order in the community can be seen in grooming. They are VERY social creatures,hierarchal in nature, like us and Jiggs would become agressive when Ron brought round a new lady friend. Not necessarity dangerously so, unless provoked. Since chimps bite, then rip off the flesh as attack behavior, her front teeth were removed. And the metal device was for control. As an animal lover, NO, I don't like it. But she's a wild animal with enormous strength living and interacting closely with people. Though Jiggs was rumoured to have bitten more than once, these actions prevented the horrible disfigurment of that woman in the news. Humane or not, actions were taken for the greater good, for us, AND for her. They SHOT the male who attacked that woman. Jiggs had a great life for what it was. She was way more than a pet, or lively hood for Ron. Some days, I thought, when she got close, that she could speak. I know she most certainly could feel.

Anonymous said...

I use to work on her at the animal hospital I worked at in the 90's. She would skate in and sit at my desk and draw pictures waiting for us to work on her. I have lots of great pictures of her and she was something special to me. RIP

Lillian Cox said...

I met Mr. Jiggs and Ron Winter in the early 1990s when they lived in Encinitas, California (north of San Diego). At that time, Ron complained that he wanted to be free of Mr. Jiggs. A couple of years later, there was a story in The San Diego Union by Lisa Petrillo about Mr. Jiggs and the fact that Winters sent him to an animal sanctuary where it was reported in Petrillo's story that he "died of a broken heart." Here is a link to a related story about Mr. Jiggs in San Diego Magazine: http://www.sandiegomagazine.com/San-Diego-Magazine/October-1997/A-Million-Stories-in-the-Naked-City/

Anonymous said...

MR Jiggs performed at Ridge Road School in Cedar Grove in the 70's. I can vividly remember the kids all around the indoor gym basketball, court going crazy as Mr Jiggs zoomed around the floor on roller skates. IT WAS AWESOME... probably the best day ever at the school.

Robert Easterling said...

So sad

Robert Easterling said...

I met Mr Jiggs at a grand opening of Boscovs, a store in Camp Hill, Pa. Around 1985, and shook her soft hand.
Another day the promotional act was Dorothy Lamour and then Sophia Loren selling her perfume!! WOW.
Owner. said they travel in a motor home and he/she used the toilet.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Jiggs opened for the Grateful Dead in 1976:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G1yLgdzAbXQ

Todd Holtz said...

I lived across the street of Ron's exwife and sons house. Jiggs was never upset or irate. He playfully threw bananas and apples at the kids in the neighborhood when they walked by. I remember him smoking cigs and riding his motorcycle up and down the street. I never saw Ron have a need or a reason to use the collar on Jiggs. I'd say she was content with her surroundings and loved traveling in the RV. sad i never took any pictures with Jiggs though...

tone said...

Mr. Jiggs performed at my cousin's 4th birthday party in August 1974, in Glen Ridge NJ. I do not recall if I were present, but he climbed a tree and could not be coaxed down. I'd have to inquire for more information on this, but just as I find your page to write, thanks to Google, I am scanning a photo of him sitting in a chair in his tux, with his handler and a minibike nearby. I think things went wrong shortly after the photo.

Anonymous said...

I was looking for a place to live in the news paper and found an add looking for someone to rent a room in a house. I made an appointment and went over to this house in NJ and ended up having lunch with Mr Jiggs and his owner. I had no idea who he was because I was from MA and never heard of Mr Jiggs. I must say it was the most unusual experience I had ever had and I decided that I did not want to share a bathroom with a chimp:)