The Crass Menagerie

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

To be sure, there had been earlier animal attractions, places like Alligator Joe's Farm and Tropical Gardens, near what is now downtown Miami. But Rosie was different. For one, elephants, unlike gators, aren't indigenous to South Florida; for another, she could be trained. The combination proved inspirational. In 1935 Joe DuMond opened his Monkey Jungle, in rural South Miami-Dade County, to the public. A year later Franz Scherr, a friend of DuMond's, unveiled his own roadside venture: Parrot Jungle.

These independent, family-owned attractions and countless others like them thrived, becoming as identifiable with a Florida vacation as any beach or hotel. During the Fifties and Sixties, the Kodak Company acknowledged it sold more film at Parrot Jungle than at any other Florida tourist spot. Countless photo albums across America contained snapshots of friends and relatives in the quintessential Parrot Jungle pose, standing upright with outstretched arms doubling as perches for the park's colorfully feathered inhabitants. Even British Prime Minister Winston Churchill got in on the act during one South Florida vacation, posing with a white cockatoo on his shoulder.

The postwar era was the golden age of roadside attractions throughout the nation, as middle-class incomes, automobile purchases, and vacation time all increased in the wake of unprecedented economic growth. America had time, money, wheels, and an itch to go places. Ironically it was the very popularity of driving vacations that contributed to the demise of many of the popular mom-and-pop roadside venues. In an effort to modernize American roads, the government in 1956 established the Federal Interstate Highway Department. The agency created over 41,000 miles of new highway, including Interstate 95, and changed the way Americans traveled. "People became more interested in getting where they were going," relates Tim Hollis, "than enjoying the experience of the trip."

That's edutainment: monkey see, monkey show, monkey eat
That's edutainment: monkey see, monkey show, monkey eat

Certainly there was less to enjoy along the way. Unlike the old highways, like U.S. 1, which often took motorists through the center of a town, the superhighways rerouted them to the urban hinterlands where the only thing to look forward to was the next rest area. Roadside attractions responded to the state-sanctioned snub by posting bigger and flashier signs to lure travelers back. At least they tried to. In the early Sixties, the highway beautification movement was initiated, and billboards became subject to regulation.

But the death knell for many of the state's smaller, independent tourist traps really came in 1971, when Walt Disney World opened in Orlando. Hardest hit were businesses south of the superpark. As one South Florida motel owner put it: "It was as if someone had built a wall across the middle of the state." Families that once drove to Florida to take in all of the east coast, from St. Augustine to Miami, now went straight to Orlando, exhausting both themselves and their vacation budgets in the Magic Kingdom.

Miami attractions, with the revival of South Beach, would eventually fight a two-front war: Mickey to the north and clubland to the east. Faced with that kind of competition, tourist venues generally speaking either got bigger -- as when the old Crandon Park Zoo on Key Biscayne gave way to Metrozoo in the early Eighties -- or, more often, got lost.

Day 2: "Where the humans are caged and the monkeys roam free." So says the Monkey Jungle billboard on South Dixie Highway, near SW 216th Street, the tributary road that deposits visitors at the Jungle's main entrance.

If Parrot Jungle, with its lush greenery and free-flying birds, approximates a wildlife habitat, Monkey Jungle is reminiscent of the settlements erected by great white explorers in Hollywood movies and old television shows like Daktari. A network of walkways made from wood and wire mesh takes paying customers through much of the park while monkeys scramble furiously on the steel-net ceiling above. Their only trick is reaching through the mesh to raise and lower the metal feeding cups strung from the ceiling. Clanging the cups, they urge the visiting humans to fill the receptacles with store-bought monkey food.

It doesn't take an animal-rights activist to view this Jungle as a primate prison. Though it may be mathematically true that most monkeys roam free, a lot of them dwell in traditional cages, complete with iron bars. It was only a few years ago, after all, that animal-rights groups protested the treatment of King the gorilla after the big ape started showing signs of depression and banging his head against the concrete walls of his cinder-block "habitat" (see "A King and His Not-Quite Castle," New Times, 12/25/97). Eventually the animal was moved to an island-like environment in a private section of the park, out of view. A peek at King from over the large wooden gate that conceals his new home confirms things have both gotten better and remained the same: He's got room in which to roam but he still looks a little lonely.

Controversy and appearances aside, Monkey Jungle continues to promote itself as a research facility. The brochure visitors receive describes the place as a "biopark" and lists a number of scientific articles researched there, but none since 1968. Not that Monkey Jungle is fooling anybody, of course. Folks pay money to see monkeys because they're amusing as hell. There aren't any Jane Goodalls in the crowd.

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