Tampa’s Lowry Park Chimps Walk on Grass

In the fall of 1966, somewhere in Liberia, West Africa, an infant chimpanzee was taken by poachers after his mother and the rest of the family was killed for meat.  The baby almost certainly saw his mother die trying to protect him. In December of the same year, an American named Ed Schultz, working for an iron-ore mining company in the west African port of Buchanan, heard that someone at the mess hall was selling that baby chimp. Schultz found the man, paid $25 in cash, and took Herman home to meet his wife and children.

The Schultzes fed Herman from a baby bottle, put him in diapers, and taught him to eat his fruit and drink from a cup at the dinner table. A few months later, they started caring for another young chimp, a female they named Gitta.

Soon, Ed took a job as a manager at a phosphate company in Tampa, Florida and moved there with his family, including Herman and Gitta.  The chimps were five years old and on the verge of chimp adolescence. They were getting larger and stronger, and Ed was no longer comfortable keeping them at home with his wife and children.

1-Mayor-with-chimps-Thu__JuIn 1971, after looking for a new home for Herman and Gitta, Ed decided to donate them to Lowry Park Zoo, which at the time was run by the city of Tampa.  In those days, Lowry Park had a reputation as a stark and sometimes even grim place but, to Ed, Lowry Park seemed like the best choice for his chimps. The zoo was ready to give Herman and Gitta a cage of their own, larger than the one they were kept in with the Schultzes.

On the day of the big move, the Schultz family drove the chimps to downtown Tampa for a ceremonial visit to City Hall. A Tampa Tribune photographer took pictures of Mayor Dick Greco with the chimps pondering the city budget.

IMG_20190927_111325122Twelve years before I arrived at the Lowry Park zoo, in June 1972, Herman and I were featured in a newspaper article. He was just a little guy—about six years old—and he did not deserve to be behind bars. A photo of him in the article evokes a sense of despair even though he appears relaxed with one foot propped up on the bars as he picks intently at a piece of fruit. He had only been in those cramped, dank quarters for about a year, but the real tragedy was that he would live there for another dozen years before our paths would cross again and I would be privileged to do something about his condition.

I met Ed Schultz soon after I arrived as director of the zoo in 1984 and he was pleased that our master plan would provide Herman and Gitta a spacious grassy area in the World of Primates. But first they would need to move out of the way of construction. A new, temporary cage was assembled a few hundred yards from their old home and in the summer of 1985, we tranquilized the chimps and moved them. Their new space was a big improvement over the old, oppressive cage. The old exhibit was a block building with a 15-foot by 20-foot exhibit space. Visitors viewed the chimps through a double layer of chain-link attached inside and outside of the structure’s iron bars, making it nearly impossible to see the animals. The new cage, though only temporary, was more spacious, and it was open on all sides, instead of being backed-up to a building. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was a slight improvement, and in a few years, things would get even better.

Goodall 1987By late 1985, all of the zoo cages had been moved and all of the animals transferred. It was time for the serious construction to begin. An army of workers dug cavernous holes, poured massive concrete footings, and the outline of a new zoo began to take shape. The first phase would be built around three themes—an Asian Domain, a World of Primates, and a walk-through aviary. The public areas would consist of new ticketing, entry, and gift shop. An impressive central plaza would feature a fountain around a pair of bronze manatees. For nearly three years, workers poured concrete, sculpted artificial rocks, and installed caging. Primatologist, Jane Goodall paid the chimps a visit in 1987 and by the end of that year, we were planting grass, testing waterfalls, and moving animals into their new homes.

IMG_20190927_111156261The new chimpanzee area was not especially large, but it was an interesting and varied space for animals that had only known concrete and chain-link. Large logs and an artificial termite mound broke up a long, grassy yard. A deep dry moat afforded the chimps an unobstructed view of their human visitors and the landscape beyond. One of the highlights of my zoo career came in the winter of 1988 when I witnessed Herman and Gitta step out of their new night-house and walk on grass for the first time in many years. Herman climbed atop what would become his favorite perch—the termite mound—to gaze back at me. I am not suggesting that he was actually “happy”, but I do know that I did everything in my power to make him so.

IMG_20190827_151000454As the first phase of the Lowry Park Zoo neared completion in February 1988, the Zoo Association became the Lowry Park Zoological Society, a private nonprofit organization dedicated to the management and ongoing development of a superior zoological garden. Tampa’s rejuvenated Lowry Park Zoo formally opened to the public on March 5, 1988. Two months later, I left Tampa to begin my next adventure.


 Next week: Sioux Falls, South Dakota – the zoo as a museum

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