The Crass Menagerie

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

But there are some familiar faces milling around the Amazon Rainforest display: the family I met yesterday at Parrot Jungle. Homo touristicus, Jr., is wearing the same Monkey Jungle shirt and cap. Maybe he owns two shirts, but I can't really ask him. I hang back, following them as they make their way through the mesh-and-wire maze, out to the orangutan habitat and around to the parrot cages. They spot me. I wave. They wave back, but not like they're happy to see me.

I need a picture of them to go with the ones from yesterday, or else who's going to believe I saw them two days in a row at two different animal attractions? But shooting them at Parrot Jungle was easier. I had the element of surprise on my side and I was sitting behind them. This will be trickier. They're watching me, some fool reporter playing Stanley to their Livingstone.

I follow them. One of them always seems to be looking in my direction. I begin to fear a confrontation. But no, they're running. I'm right behind them, with my trusty disposable Kodak. I line them up in my sights as they hit the edge of a wooded area. Got 'em! I think. I advance the film and shoot again. The camera sticks. I'm out of film.

Standing in the open-air walkway, recovering from the hunt, reading a plaque offering an account of the geological history of the site, I hear the distinctive sound of running water. At first I ignore it, thinking it's emanating from one of the cages behind me or possibly from the Wild Monkey Swimming Pool, where the Java macaques take turns diving into the water, chasing food tossed by park staff and visitors.

But no, the source of the sound is closer to home. I look around. At first I catch only the sad eyes of the white-handed gibbon, sitting on the floor of his cage, arm draped across his knee. Then I look up. And jump back. Almost directly above, a monkey is releasing a steady stream of piss, missing me by inches.

The little bugger had been camped out there all along, above the spot where the plaque hangs, the one place where a human predictably might linger for more than a few seconds. He knew what he was doing. He's done it before. I step away before the monkey shit has a chance to fly. From the parking lot, I can still make out the territorial shrieks of Jordan, the red howler monkey, proclaiming the Jungle is his.


Day 3: The Everglades Alligator Farm sits at the edge of the national park, all the way at the southern tip of SW 192nd Avenue in Florida City. It's the last leg of my tour and, in many ways, the stop that brings me closest to the original Zeitgeist of the roadside animal attraction. Unlike the Jungles, the alligator farm appears to be in the tourist business almost by accident, a perception that isn't far from the truth.

Founded in 1982 but descended in spirit from the reptile ranches that first sprang up around Florida in the late Nineteenth Century, the farm made its mission to grow and harvest gators for their meat and hides. "When we bought the place," remembers Charles Thibos, who purchased the farm in 1991, "we could get $40 to $50 for a foot of hide. The business was viable." Then farms in Louisiana started cranking out gators. "Now," sighs Thibos, "you're lucky if you can get fifteen dollars a foot."

So Everglades Alligator Farm has turned, increasingly, to tourism. Attendance last year, according to Thibos, was roughly 100,000, down twenty percent from 2000. The owner, who admits his farm is a small-scale operation compared with places like Parrot Jungle, isn't worried about the drop-off or the competition. "People think small-town doctors are inferior to big-city doctors," explains the Chipley native, "but small-town doctors see 40 people a day and they make a killing. It's all about providing a quality product."

To that end the farm has adopted many of the edutainment features of the other attractions: informational exhibits, shows, and wrestling demonstrations. And because gators aren't as endearing as parrots or monkeys -- or perhaps because you can only watch them grow for so long -- the farm includes a fast-paced component: a twenty-minute airboat ride through the Everglades.

Our airboat pilot today is John, a charter fishing guide from nearby Flamingo who works at the farm to supplement his income. While we slowly lurch through the canals surrounding the farm, John points out blue heron, egrets, Florida soft-shelled turtles, and of course alligators, sunbathing on the shore or floating silently through the water, often no more than a few feet from the boat. "When they get four to five feet long, we sell them," he explains. A few of the reptiles are overdue to become handbags and belts, even if at only fifteen dollars a foot. ["They're processed at a place down the road," a gator handler will later explain. "One shot just below the head breaks their spine, then they die."]

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