In August 1940, Woodland Park Zoo put 17 male monkeys in a single enclosure with a bit of moat-surrounded land they dubbed “Monkey Island.” The rumble for simian supremacy drew quite the crowd and made the front page of The Seattle Times.
As belligerents across the Atlantic pummeled each other during the summer of 1940, Seattle had its own battle raging at Woodland Park Zoo’s Monkey Island.
It all started when zoo workers moved about 17 male monkeys from their cramped cages to a new home: an open-air containment with an island and a moat.
“They think they’re back in the jungle. They don’t know they’re in captivity. If they want to climb a tree, they climb a tree,” park superintendent Gus Knudson told The Times on Aug. 15, 1940, two days after the move. “Then … they started fighting. If a monkey got licked badly, the other monkeys threw him in the moat.”
Fighting continued until one monkey, named Sing, took charge. “Now, they’ve got a king,” explained Knudson.
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The next day’s update was disquieting, however. A Times reporter bore witness to an attempted coup d’etat led by another monkey named Coco:
“But uneasy lies the head which wears a crown. After three days as head of the government, Sing began to show signs of strain. … Plots and counterplots to shove Sing into the moat with lightning rapidity. After a conference, Coco would run up the pole and ring the cowbell as a signal for attack, and Sing, attempting to entertain his public, would be forced to break off and restore order.”
Two groups of monkeys attacked from different sides. Hoping to stave off the rebellion, zoo workers released a notoriously fierce monkey named Jocko, who had lost his tail fighting in the cages.
The attempt at peace-by-strongman didn’t work.
Two days later, “Seventeen Filipino monkeys who had been Sing’s abject subjects since Friday rose in rebellion, dethroned him without ceremony and drove him into the moat,” the Times reported. A person watching the happenings tossed a plank in the water for Sing to escape, but zoo workers intervened and sent him back to the island, according to the Times’ report.
Jocko was named one of the conspirators. “Casting his lot with the proletariat, he left Sing out on a limb,” the paper reported.
The frequent dispatches from Monkey Island accompanied grim news from Europe as the United States neared war. For weeks, The Times (and the zoo) carried on with the rather overt allegory, perhaps seeking to explain the torpedoes, gunships and bombings as products of a savage, animal world.
Discussing the popularity of the exhibit, Knudson told The Times:
“What’s going on in Europe? Why, people are sneaking around and hiding behind trees and trying to bump each other off. Now look out there on the island. The monkeys are doing the same thing. Dictators and everything. No wonder thousands of people come out here to watch.”
Each monkey was known in print by his nickname (Little Potato, Adam the Stool Pigeon and Sailor Nebuchadnezzar were three popular monkeys). The Times detailed many of their origin stories. Adam the Stool Pigeon, for example, was one of four monkeys the zoo had taken from Universal Pictures. He was known as a gossiping monkey prone to stirring up trouble.
“Adam the Stool Pigeon is at heart an anarchist, for he continually is trying to undermine the reigning dictator. Every aspirant to power fears Adam,” according to a dispatch filed to the paper 10 days after the Monkey Island experiment began.
Crowds flocked to the zoo throughout the battles (25,000 people visited Monkey Island one Sunday). But before Seattle’s interest turned fully to the more brutal primates abroad, Knudson used Monkey Island to outline his vision to build more “outdoor grottoes” for animals.
That vision became a reality that ultimately consumed the island itself. As the zoo modernized, Monkey Island was converted into a more natural habitat, and became lush living quarters for lemurs.