Monkey mania erupts at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo on August 15, 1940.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 9/04/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10476
On August 15, 1940, monkey mania erupts at Woodland Park Zoo.  Approximately 17 monkeys, freed from their cages and placed on a communal "monkey island" at the zoo, battle each other to determine who will be supreme simian of the isle. Their frantic antics thrill zoo goers, make front page news in The Seattle Times, attract some of the largest crowds in the zoo's history to that time, and provide a welcome distraction from the war in Europe.

Monkey Business on Monkey Island

Before August 1940, monkeys at the Woodland Park Zoo were kept in separate cages and were rarely exposed to each other.  That changed when the zoo's new "monkey island" opened on August 13. It was made up of large rocks laid in cement and topped with three trees, two of which were artificial. The 70-by-90-foot island was surrounded by a moat 20 feet wide and filled with shallow water. The monkeys could easily swim in the moat, but a wall at its far end kept them from escaping. 

Approximately 17 male monkeys were placed on the island. At first, they were confused and huddled together in small groups. Not used to being in direct sunlight, they jumped when they saw their shadows. But that quickly passed. Soon they began fighting to determine who would rule the roost. Several victors quickly came and went. One was a monkey named Coco, who lasted maybe a day before being overthrown and reduced to frequent bouts of running up a 20-foot steel pole on the island and ringing a cowbell at the top. Observed crack Seattle P-I reporter Doug Welch (1907-1968), "[H]e rings a nice cowbell, it must be admitted" ("Sing Cows Simian Colony…"). 

Coco was dethroned by a Chinese monkey named Sing, who got off to a good start by knocking half a dozen challengers into the moat. He was also a bit of the party animal, and enjoyed dancing what the Times described as "a kind of sailor's hornpipe" for the crowds. And by this time crowds were gathering, encouraged by lavish coverage in both the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times. The P-I 's Welch, who knew how to take a good story and run with it, had a field day providing updates of the Battle of Monkey Island. Likewise, the Times provided near-daily accounts of the zaniness at the zoo. The monkeys danced and fought, screamed and schemed, threw their enemies into the moat, and seemed to enjoy it almost as much as the spectators. 

Simian Stress 

The stress of being top monkey proved to be too much for Sing. By the second day of his reign he was biting his tail and screaming in pain. The other monkeys took notice and began plotting rebellion. Zoo director Gus Knudson (1880-1951) dismissed a spreading rumor that he intended to turn a couple of baboons loose on the island, perhaps to police the place: "They'd eat those smaller monkeys like corn on the cob" ("Nothing's Quiet…"). Instead, Knudson added another monkey named Jocko to the island to help Sing out. However, Jocko wasn't interested in power. He strutted about while Sing stood on a rock and feverishly spun in circles. Eventually Jocko too decided Sing was nuts and joined the revolution. 

The big battle came on a Saturday evening, and Sing's sacking was witnessed by a delighted human crowd. The P-I described it as a great "naval engagement" in which Coco and Sing violently fought it out in the island's moat. But it was the Times that seems to have summed up the whole affair best:  

"When the crisis came and Sing's government fell, it was difficult to determine whether the band of monkeys on the island, or the crowd watching the revolution from the wall, was the more agitated. The crowd cheered, a woman screamed, someone threw a plank into the water for Sing to escape across, and someone else called the police" ("Sing Dynasty on Monkey Isle Ends…").  

A Bearded Boss 

Embittered by the experience, Sing was banished to solitary in a cage. Yoko, a bearded monkey with a penchant for sticking out his tongue, soon became the new boss. He reigned for about a week before he too found himself ignominiously tossed in the moat. Meanwhile, the press coverage continued. A firsthand, typed exclusive from the front appeared in the August 21 P-I by simian "Elmer the Gimp" (most likely Doug Welch in disguise); the Times continued its near-daily reports for another week, and people came in droves.  An estimated 25,000 persons visited the island on Sunday, August 18, and streetcars serving the zoo made 16 extra trips to handle the traffic. An equally large crowd was at the zoo the next Sunday.  

"All these monkeys are rogues' gallery characters," explained Knudson ("Hist! Fifth Column Abroad..."), and indeed they were, with names to match -- Adam the Stool Pigeon, Busy Bee, and Good For Nothing, to name a few. They continued to entertain large crowds as August waned, but by Labor Day it was becoming old hat, and human attention again turned to the expanding conflagration in Europe. 


Sources: Doug Welch, "Sing Cows Simian Colony Into Submission -- For a Day," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 16, 1940, p. 17;  Doug Welch, "Nothing's Quiet on the Monkey Front," Ibid., August 17, 1940, p. 3;  "Zoo Monkeys Depose Flea-Bitten Dictator," Ibid., August 18, 1940, p. 6;  "Truce Declared in Monkey War," Ibid., August 19, 1940, p. 3; Doug Welch, "Monkey Isle Revolt Still Simmers," Ibid., August 20, 1940, p. 3; "Elmer the Gimp," "Elmer Can't Make Head Nor Tail of Monk Isle," Ibid., August 21, 1940, p. 11; Paul O'Neil, "Dictator Commands Fighting Zoo Monkeys and All's Well," The Seattle Times, August 15, 1940, p. 1;  Paul O'Neil, "Simian 'Strong Man' Keeps King Sing on Park Island Throne," Ibid., August 16, 1940, p. 1;  Matthew O'Connor, "Sing Dynasty on Monkey Isle Ends, Dictator Gets Dunking," Ibid., August 18, 1940, p. 8;  "Queen Is Planning to Make Monkeys Out of Dictators," Ibid., August 19, 1940, p. 19;  "Monkeys Draw More Visitors Than Bridge, Says Kundson," Ibid., August 22, 1940, p. 1;  "Hist!  Fifth Column Abroad; Monkey Isle Under Suspicion," Ibid., August 23, 1940, p. 2; "Sailor Simian Blows Rivals Down With Ease," Ibid., August 26, 1940, p. 12;  "Gustaf Knudson," Find A Grave website accessed August 17, 2013 (http://www.findagrave.com).

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