The Crass Menagerie
Heading south on Red Road, the houses get farther and farther apart until they become easy to count, and then I know I'm almost there: Parrot Jungle. The surrounding village of Pinecrest, an affluent, tree-lined community carved out of unincorporated Miami-Dade County five years ago, has kept a lid on development, preferring to zone the area for one-acre residential estates. According to Parrot Jungle's top brass, it was the village's unwillingness to accommodate growth, along with local opposition to special events at the park, that prompted the 65-year-old tourist attraction's impending move to Watson Island, a slab of dredged earth off the MacArthur Causeway between Miami and Miami Beach.
The transplant operation will be accompanied by a face-lift. When Parrot Jungle and Gardens premieres on Watson Island sometime in early 2003 (officials have not announced a specific date), the $47-million project will feature not one but two 1000-seat open-air theaters for bird and wildlife shows, a 500-seat indoor "Terrarium Theater," a 1000-seat banquet hall, and a 3000-square-foot souvenir store dubbed the "Parrot Jungle Emporium."
It'll need all that space. Parrot Jungle's new location, just off Interstate 395, should prove to be a magnet for South Beach-bound tourists, curiosity seekers on shore leave from the ten-story cruise ships docked at the nearby Port of Miami, or folks just wandering over from one of the island's other new additions: a luxury hotel-marina, the Miami Children's Museum, and the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. By every objective measure the Watson Island Parrot Jungle and Gardens will be new and improved, bigger and busier.
Except, of course, that it won't be a "jungle" at all. It'll be something else entirely -- a theme park, or in the words of Parrot Jungle general manager Bobbie Ibarra, "an entertainment theme facility," one that in its first year of operation is expected to welcome 700,000 visitors, more than twice the number the old park drew in 2001.
The difference will not be simply one of scale, however, but of orientation. Gone will be the huckster aesthetic -- the lingering scent of eau de hustle -- that made Parrot Jungle and other classic roadside animal attractions so, well, charming. "Initially, the jungle attractions were trying to preserve Florida's natural landscape," explains Tim Hollis, a historian of Southern roadside amusements, "then they went overboard, introducing Polynesian themes and imported animals, things that had nothing to do with Florida." In the narrowest possible sense, perhaps.
On another level these places had everything to do with Florida. The manufactured jungles and canned animalia were quintessentially Miami, first cousins to the exaggerated sales pitches of the region's boom-time developers, who pushed tropical climates and air-conditioning, the freedom of the frontier and the perks of modern living.
Conveying a sense of South Florida as both an exotic locale and a place where nature could be tamed, as a land where anything was possible, these old-school attractions might be the last, best remnants of the particular combination of innocence, cynicism, wonder, and larceny that inspired our little corner of the world.
This species of tourist destination, of course, has been endangered since the early Seventies, when the mother of all animal parks opened in Orlando: Walt Disney World. Few local, independent operations could compete with a world-famous, six-foot-tall talking mouse and a regional economy geared toward funneling visitors to his front door 365 days a year.
Mickey's triumph was economic and cultural. The Magic Kingdom, mechanized, orderly and predictable, made other tourist attractions appear at best outdated, and at worst unclean and unsafe. Competitors have had to follow the mouse's trail. "We've learned from Orlando's megafacilities," Ibarra reveals. "I see them as role models." Never mind that going to Disney World -- land of long lines and indistinguishable choices -- feels a lot like going to the supermarket. Or the mall. The Watson Island development, says Ibarra, "is going to be part of the new Miami glitz."
But not until next winter. Which means there's still time for one last real safari, one last journey into what's left of our crass menagerie. And I'm taking it.
Day 1: My Honda, a blue Civic, swings into the parking lot at Parrot Jungle, just off Red Road at SW 110th Street, without a sound and is at rest. I check the backpack I prepared last night: reporter's notebook, pen, disposable camera, sunglasses, small snack, cash. I'm ready to go.
Sixteen bucks gets me in just in time to see the first "Dragons and Monsters" show of the day. In spite of the name, Parrot Jungle contains more than birds. Over the years the park has gone into the monkey, reptile, and bug business as well. I hustle to my seat in the "Jungle Outpost," a small exhibition space fronted by bench seating and covered by a wooden canopy.
"The alligator is indigenous to only two countries," says one of two young women who appear holding a two-foot-long baby gator. "Anybody know what they are?" The group of mostly tourists, retirees, and schoolchildren assembled for the show shrugs in unison. "The United States!" volunteers a brave second-grader. "That's right," confirms the woman, "the U.S. ... and where else?" No one in the audience seems to know. Time's up. "China!" declares the woman. A couple of young guys pretend to have known the answer.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."]
Reaching the point where the canal feeds into Florida's river of grass, John guns the engine and we're airborne, skipping over the water at 40 miles per hour. Without warning he throws the boat into a tailspin, covering the twenty or so passengers with brackish mist. Like a kid on a six-pack-fueled joyride, John repeats this maneuver over and over again, until the boat once again reaches the narrow confines of the canal.
Feeding time: A voice over the loudspeaker directs the crowd to the large breeding pond in the middle of the farm, where Kristy appears. Dressed in camouflage combat pants, a matching bandanna, and a black Alligator Farm T-shirt with the inscription "Bite Me!" on it, Kristy twice a day flips the gators the bird. Literally. Reaching into a bucket, she pulls out one dead, skinned chicken after another, tossing them to the herd of 2000 or so gators around the pond. The animals dispose of the birds with cold efficiency, snapping their paltry poultry bones with a quick click of their jaws, then swallowing them whole.
The crowd gasps and, perhaps, secretly wonders how many gators it would take to eat a six-foot-tall mouse.
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