A monkey mess from Uncle John’s bottomless “dustbin of history” files.
It was the year 1935. A collector of rare, and what were then considered exotic, animals named Frank Buck ran a 40-acre “jungle camp” on Long Island, New York. Once common, these animal enclosures were small roadside zoos. Buck’s was home to lions, other big cats, and, most notably, 570 rhesus monkeys.
One morning in October 1935, a maintenance man named Charles Selner reported for duty at the jungle camp. His job that day was to bathe the monkeys, which lived on a manmade “mountain” inside a manmade lake. Selner got to the island by loosening and lowering a plank from the eight-foot-tall protective wall around the water, forming a narrow, makeshift bridge. The monkeys, about five to 12 pounds each, all chattered happily as Selner began to bathe them with a brush and bucket. About three minutes later, however, Selner realized he hadn’t put the board back up after he’d made it to the island. He looked behind him to see a long line of monkeys, quickly filing off the island, to the bridge, and out of their enclosure.
Selner quickly got out and locked up the enclosure so no more monkeys could escape, and ran to tell other employees. They ran around the zoo, desperately trying to nab monkeys. (Guests were less than alarmed at the playfully skittering monkeys and the hapless zookeepers in tow.) Employees caught two slower monkeys, but the damage was done: 172 rhesus monkeys had escaped into the woods behind the park.
Monkey sightings were reported from two counties, primarily from owners finding monkeys playing in their yards, and fruit stand owners hassled by hungry monkeys. A few hours after the escape, 50 monkeys were found playing on some train tracks, requiring a train to make an emergency stop to shoo the monkeys away.
At dusk, 30 monkeys returned to the park of their own accord, having enjoyed their big day out. Over the next few weeks, the monkeys were returned to the jungle camp. Frank Buck had publicly promised a free season pass to the park to anyone who caught and returned a monkey.
Here is a link to the New York Times article from October 29, 1935.