The Crass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams AND Joe Conrad go deeper into Parrot and Monkey Jungle than was, perhaps, wise

This type of presentation, a cross between show-and-tell and the old carnival come-on to get you in the tent, is typical of the roadside genre. The gator-toting twins, as it turns out, are only the opening act. The real star of the show is Oscar. Sporting long, black hair pulled back in a ponytail, earrings, a goatee, and a microphone headset, Oscar could pass for a Backstreet Boy. At the moment, though, the only bands he's interested in are the ones on the coral snake he's holding. "Red and yellow, you're dead, fellow," Oscar recites, explaining how to determine from their coloring if such snakes are poisonous. "Red and black, it's OK, Jack." Oscar's snake is red and black.

He subsequently produces a bearded dragon from Australia, a sulfur water monster named Pepe, and finally the showstopper: the park's famed albino alligator. Pulling the large gator around by his tail, our MC explains the animal is one of only fifty of its kind in captivity. "This one was one of eighteen found in Louisiana," says Oscar, bringing the gator right up to the reinforced glass barrier that separates the audience from the animals. "Ten of those are still alive." No one inquires about the fate of the other eight. With his wet, white, coarse skin and lethargic demeanor, the gator more resembles a fresh plaster cast than a living thing. But nobody's petting it.

Traversing the paths that cut through the heart of the Jungle after the show, I encounter a pool of crocodiles, a tortoise and duck pond in the shadow of a giant banyan tree, and a flock of nervous flamingos congregating around a lake. A stroll through the bird aviaries threatens to make me late for the "Jungle Creatures" exhibit in the Wildlife Theater, but as it turns out I make it to my seat with time to spare.

Smile, you're at Parrot Jungle: the writer with his mother, circa 1970
Courtesy of Gaspar Gonzàlez
Smile, you're at Parrot Jungle: the writer with his mother, circa 1970
Smarter than the average bird: Parrots and cockatoos pedal, scoot, and cuddle  at Parrot Jungle
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Smarter than the average bird: Parrots and cockatoos pedal, scoot, and cuddle at Parrot Jungle

And then I spot them: a family of large humans. Mother and father are in their sixties. Son and daughter-in-law appear to be in their early thirties. Son's sister is a year or two older. My attention is drawn to the young marrieds. Both are dressed in shorts and T-shirt, both carry backpacks: he, a standard-issue Jansport; she, one with colorful Scooby-Doo markings. Maybe it's all the taxonomy going to my head, but from afar they resemble homo touristicus from the Pre-South Beach Period: middle Americans who started coming to Miami on vacation five minutes after we first hung out the sign a hundred and five years ago. Their natural environment is Howard Johnson's, not the Tides Hotel on Ocean Drive. Their diet consists of fast-food meals in between trips to Vizcaya and Miami Metrozoo, not late-night dinners at Touch or Yuca on Lincoln Road. I remember them from the old days and knew a few could still be found here and there. I move closer for a positive identification.

Egads! The younger male is wearing not one but two items of clothing clearly distinguishing him as a member of the species. On his chest, a T-shirt with the legend "Take a Walk on the Wild Side" and a cartoon rendering of monkeys at play. On his head, a matching cap. Monkey Jungle souvenirs! At Parrot Jungle!

I inch toward the family, so as not to startle them. Taking a seat behind them, I wait for an opportune moment, a lull in the conversation. I ask where they're from. "We're from way out of town," says the monkey-clad man. By "way out of town," he means Boulder, Colorado. Acknowledging his T-shirt and cap, I inquire about his migratory patterns. Has he visited Monkey Jungle on this trip, or on some previous jaunt? He looks around, silently consulting the other members of the pack. How does he feel about Parrot Jungle's move to Watson Island? He shrugs, then wheels in his seat. The group is suspicious of my intentions. I retreat, but only back into my chair.

After the "Jungle Creatures" show, which includes a Madagascar hissing cockroach, a skunk named Thelma, and Mikey the bald eagle, I head over to the so-called Parrot Bowl for the one that's been putting people in the seats since the Thirties: the trained parrot show. Closer to a parrot circus, the exhibit features a minichariot race in which the birds do the pulling; an appearance by Macho the parrot, who plays dead when a toy gun is pointed at him; Tina the roller-skating cockatoo (think teeny, tiny skates); and Nikki, another cockatoo, who pedals a small bicycle across a high wire (doesn't balance it, mind you -- the bike is fastened to the line). Pinky, the 60-year-old Moluccan cockatoo who performed the stunt for years, most famously at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, now watches Nikki from offstage and will probably do so for some time to come, given the species' life expectancy of 80 years. "Takes six months to a year to teach them to ride that bike, folks," says Denise, the show's MC. Sure, but why would it ever occur to anybody to try in the first place?

Perhaps it all started with Rosie, Carl Fisher's pet elephant. Fisher, of course, was the Midwestern millionaire industrialist who in the first decades of the last century built Miami Beach out of a mangrove swamp. In need of a marketing tool for his new Xanadu, he purchased Rosie, a baby elephant who in 1921 served as Warren Harding's golf caddy during his visit to the area. Photos of the President-to-be and the precocious pachyderm circulated throughout the nation.

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