Tag Archives: towan


Nearly 40 years ago, I moved to Seattle and eventually got a job at the zoo. Not a glamorous job, but rather manager of the food services. That is rather a hyperbolic name for what it actually was: A set of three iron trailers spread around the zoo from which we sold popcorn, hot dogs, soda and candy bars.

It was a good vantage point to watch human behavior and even better to observe the functioning of a zoo. I’ve written about this before, and you can visit Part 1 of this zoo story at:

When I started, I wasn’t the only newby. There was a new director, David Hancocks, and as with every new administration, the old hands resented the changes being proposed. Later, Hancocks proved a farsighted and innovative head of this zoo, and later the Sonoran-Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona. He won over the old hands in Seattle, but when he first arrived, there was suspicion and even hostility.

You have to remember that until the mid-1970s, zookeepers were low-level city employees. The bear-keeper had been a city garbage collector before transferring to the zoo. Few had a college degree, and Hancocks proposed to up the level of professionalism at the zoo.

Nevertheless, at the first meeting with the zoo staff, Hancocks impressed at least some of the keepers as a bureaucrat and they felt he had condescended to them.

“You know what he said at the meeting?” complained one of the monkey keepers. “You have to wash your hands after going to the bathroom. Geezuz, does he even know what we do all day? We shovel animal shit. I wash my hands before going to the bathroom.”

Everyone at the zoo was known not by their proper names, but by their descriptions: There was Monkey Man, Gorilla Lady, Large Pepsi No Ice — he was known by his perpetual order at the food stand. Gorilla Lady had a second career as a belly dancer in a local Greek restaurant. The old bear keeper, on the verge of retirement was universally known as “Grampa.”

There were Bandana Man with the giraffes, Macho Man with the apes, the Bike Woman who was in charge of the gates. I was single at the time and lonely in a new city and Bike Lady was attractive. I’ll get to her in a bit.

But I want to mention Tree. She worked the admission gate, was about six-foot-four tall and studying poison-arrow toads.

Periodically, the alligators had to be emptied of the pennies they had swallowed. Signs said not to throw coins into the gator pool, but people are jerks. If the beasts had not been disgorged of their pennies, the copper  and zinc would have poisoned them.

Needless to say, getting an alligator to cooperate was not an easy thing. They had to be sedated and a plastic hoop or funnel stuck between their jaws to hold them open. One of the first public-relations events to happen after I got to the zoo was a gator purging, and the press was invited, with TV cameras covering the event, and newspaper photographers gathered around. The gator was laid up on a table with the hoop in its mouth. A zookeeper stuck his arm down the gullet of the beast to scoop out the coins. His arm was not long enough to reach the stomach and he had to give up. A second keeper tried; his arm was not long enough either.

Finally Tree was called. She reached her long arm down, glommed onto a pile of coins and coagulated gator-gut goo and pulled it out. Everyone seemed content. Pictures had been gotten. Stories were writing themselves. But the moment Stick pulled herself out from the digestive tract of the reptile, the beast woke, snapped its mouth shut, cracked the plastic hoop into bits and writhed on the table. Talk about nick of time.

Then, there was Ape Man Jack. He was in charge of the lion-tailed macaques. Jack was a true misanthropist. He never had more than a grunt for another of his own species. But he would talk all day long with his monkeys. He had down all their idioms and seemed to fit into the troop very well. He was a sort of alpha-male to the monkeys, taking over from the dominant Junior, whenever he was around. Ape Man scowled around the zoo, glowering at everyone. But then he would come home to the monkey island and a broad grin would show — or at least he would bare his teeth to the macaques and reassert his dominance.

Grampa was a relief keeper, usually working the bears and sealions. Often, I would donate the day’s leftover hotdogs and the two of us would take them to the backstage of the grizzly bear enclosure and toss them down the bears’ gullets. Those maws were as big as the Lincoln Tunnel. There was no swallowing involved; the wieners just rattled down the chute to the bears’ tummies.

The main snack stand, where I worked, was right next to the large-ape house. I got to know the orangutans really well. They got to know me, too, and each day, as the hours wore down, I would visit Towan, the male, Chinta, his sister and mother of his child, and Melati, a small breeding female on loan from the National Zoo. Towan became my fast friend. I have a signed photo of him.

When the zoo had cleared out, the sun was setting, the peacocks screaming their banshee-calls, the siamangs whooping and the teens working for me in the stand were emptying the snot-thick hot water from the hot-dog boiler and mopping the steel floors, I would wander over to Towan. When he saw me approach, Towan would amble over to the front of his enclosure to greet me. Often, in a gesture of Orang generosity, he would stop chewing on his food and offer the chyme out to me on his extended lower lip.

We had a close relationship. He was like a bartender to me. I would pour out my troubles to him, complain about my loneliness, and he would sit opposite me, on the other side of the glass, with his forearm resting on the sill, staring into my face, listening intently. He would take the burlap cloth that was his main plaything and use it to wipe down the sill, like barkeep swabbing down the bar. It was a nearly daily routine.

In later years, after I was long gone, Towan took up art. He became famous, if that’s the right word, for scribbling with magic markers and paintbrushes on large sheets of cardboard. In this, he followed the lead of the former artistic star of the Phoenix Zoo, Ruby the Elephant, who had died in 1998, and whose canvases had sold for up to  $25,000.

I was saddened to hear, in 2016, that Towan had died, at the age of 48. He was the oldest Orangutan who had been born in captivity.

I had my name, too. Since Grampa was already taken, I was Dad to my employees — most of them high school kids working a summer job. Eventually I had two assistant managers, splitting the week between them.

One was Colin, who pronounced his name the way Colin Powell pronounces his. He was the son of a black geneticist from D.C. and a white mother. He said he was one of his father’s genetic experiments. Colin was gay and his ambition was to become a fashion model or an architect. Colin was very bright and what he lacked in dependability, he made up for in brains.

I was living at the time in a house with the world’s most obscene man and two lesbian doctors. Their names were Cam and Clink. Hard to beat that name combo. But Colin’s boyfriend was named Dick. Need I say more?

My other assistant was a redhead called the Vixen. The Vixen had a temper that blew at least twice a day — as dependable as Old Faithful — usually when customers continued to ask her the same stupid questions. “You have root beer?” “No, we have Pepsi, Sprite and Grape.” “OK, I’ll have a root beer.”

The Vixen and I got to be good friends, but I thought it wise, as her boss, not to mess with her romantically. I stayed away from all my employees — I had about 25 during the summer. But later, I learned that The Vixen was gay, too, so the question had always been academic.

When the machinery was running smoothly at the zoo, I didn’t have to do anything but supervise my help. That gave me a great deal of free time at the zoo and I used it to get to know all the animals and keepers.

Then there was Carma, a volunteer, and her mother. Nancy was 38 and dressed and acted 15. She dated a different boy each night. She collected admissions. To the zoo, I mean.

Carma was indeed 15, but she was the adult in the family. I liked Carma and we went out for lunch occasionally. The world’ most obscene man liked her, too, and tried to date her. (“Imagine, if she were only a year younger, she could get into the movies cheap!”) But she fended off his drooling, or most of it.

At the zoo, we provided coffee every day for the keepers. We had several regulars and I got to be good buddies with them. They would take their breaks with a hand around a hot paper cup of rancid black java and we would talk. One of these was an alternate primates keeper named Macho Man. He would tell me  story after twisted story about his relationship with Bike Woman. Ah, Bike Woman.

He beat her and verbally abused her. She had aborted their accidental baby. He took that as an insult to his masculinity and beat on her some more. She had him arrested for assault and he asked me one day, “Do you think I should jump bail and get out of the state? That woman is crazy. She’s out to get me. If I stay here, she’s bound to get my ass thrown in the slammer. When I think of jail, it gives me the creeps, and all because I had the gumption to discipline my woman.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Not much. I just slapped her around a bit.”

Later that day, I talked with Bike Woman.

“That bastard saw me leaving the parking lot the other day and he rammed his pickup truck into my Rabbit. Then he jumped from the cab and pulled me from the car and started hitting me in the face, calling me a whore and a slut. When I escaped from him and drove home, he followed me, trying to bump into my rear as I drove. When I got to the house, he chased me and caught me before I could get to the door and he dragged me behind the bushes and started beating on me again.”

She had a black eye and welts on her neck and legs. I don’t know how they eventually resolved their battles. I hope Macho Man found out what prison is like.

Bike Lady was attractive, about my age, and clearly in need of a more sympathetic male friend.

I asked Carma about Bike Woman. “What is her real name? How old is she? And is she married?”

Carma had previously ruined one of my fantasies with the bulletin that Tree — remember Tree? — who had blond hair and a smile that melted me every time she aimed it, was married.

“Bike Woman’s real name is Joan and she’s not married. I think she’s a bit flaky, though.”


“Oh, I don’t know.”

“What else do you know about her?”

“She’s got two kids. One of them is under a year old.”

Not what I wanted to hear, but I still was interested.

The following day, I was walking from my little tin office to stand No. 3 when I hear the ratchet sound of a coasting bicycle behind me. The bike slows down. It was Joan.

“I saw you driving this morning,” I said. “I was disappointed. I thought you rode that bike to work every day.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “It’s too far for that and besides, this old bike is too broken down. The brakes barely work.”

“So who needs brakes?” I said. “Just aim it at some children and you’ll slow down fast enough. Like a runaway truck into a sandpile.”

“I don’t think the kids are big enough to stop me.”

“So, just run into fat kids. There are plenty of them around. See, look there.” I pointed at a trio of grotesque monsters waddling along behind a grotesque mother. “The middle one is Grendel, but its’ the mama you have to watch out for.

“By the way,” I said, “Would you care to go out for dinner Thursday night. I was thinking of the India House. I haven’t been there in quite a while.”

“Well, let me think about it,” the bike stopped and Joan rested her feet on the ground. “I’d have to get a baby sitter … hmm … How about the next Thursday. That would be nice.” She gave me a broad smile.

I picked her up on the bus and we went to India. But the dinner didn’t go all that well. We were awkward together and the conversation went something like this:

“What I really want to do is go back to school,” she said.

“And what do you want to study?”

“Philosophy. I love philosophy.”

“That’s a pretty serious subject,” I said, “Are you an Aristotelian or a Platonist?”

“What are they?”

“You know, Aristotle, Plato.”

“Oh, but I mean, I’m into metaphysics.”

“Ah, but Plato is the great metaphysician …”

“No, I mean like the spirit world and astral-projection. My aunt was taken up in a flying saucer last year and communicated to them through ESP …”

My interest flagged.

But there was another woman I saw walking into the children’s zoo with Carma one day. A blond woman who looked at home in the pinstriped overalls that are a part of her uniform. She wore clear plastic glasses, totally unstylish, and my heart fluttered. No makeup, an assertive walk and interesting hands, such as you find on an artist or car mechanic.

Carma was my spy. When I needed to find out anything about anybody at the zoo, I needed only to ask Carma.

A few days later, Carma and I went up to Val’s Cafe for lunch, since we had been in the middle of a conversation when the lunch hour hit. Val’s was a greasy spoon two blocks north of the zoo on Phinney. It was run by the inevitable Greek and had to its credit two huge front windows with seats by them offering a sunny view of the gas station across the street.

Carma ordered a Denver omelet and I ordered a cheeseburger.

“Who was that blonde I saw you talking to the other day going into the children’s zoo?” I asked.

“That was Robin. She works in the CZ, with the springboks and at the Old Farm.”

“Well, how old is she?”

“I think she is about 28.”

“Is she … uh … marrrried?”


“Does she listen to classical music?” You can see I had special requirements.

“Yeah. They all do down at the CZ.”

“Does she have any … children?”

“No kids, Richard. Don’t worry.”

My brain was abuzz. I had asked my worst and Robin had passed so far with flying colors.

“Oh, wait,” said Carma. “I just remembered that she said the other day that she will be 30 in a few weeks.”

“Thirty!  … That’s even better.”

I was becoming intoxicated. Robin wore dresses. I hadn’t seen that on a woman in quite some time and it was quite a turn-on. The only thing blonder than her hair was the sun. It turns out she had been a professional swing dancer and had lived on a houseboat. But this saga is a sad tale for some other time.

Lion-tail macaques, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle

Lion-tail macaques, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle 1978

When I finally got a job, it was at the zoo. I was hired as a peon to sell popcorn. A week later, I had been promoted to manager and had the safe combination. The concessions stand at the zoo became my little kingdom; I ran it just as I wanted to. I hired the people I wanted and ignored company regulations when they seemed stupid. As a result, our zoo business made money even when the tourist season was over and all the other “restaurants” in the company were losing money down at the Puget Sound docks.

I worked in an iron box maybe 11 feet by six feet deep surrounded by Rube Goldberg steaming, fuming machines.

The concessions stand is a trailer, like those seen at little league games of county fairs, and at lunchtime, the lines for wieners and Pepsi stretch around the children’s zoo. I felt like some zoo animal myself, people staring as they walked past at this six-foot simian with a white snapper cap and striped vest smiling through his beard. But the real zoo was outside my steel cage:

“What do you have to drink?”

“Pepsi, 7-Up, Orange, Diet Pepsi and milk.”

“No grape?”

“No grape.”

“I’ll have root beer, then.”

One woman whose root beer thirst couldn’t be satisfied elsewise asked my to mix half orange and half Pepsi. (I tried it after she left to see if it was as vile as it sounds and it is.)

“You have peanuts?”

“No peanuts. We have popcorn.”

“I never heard of a zoo without peanuts. What do we feed the animals?”

(Under my breath: “That’s WHY we don’t have the damn peanuts, idiot.”)

One sweet motherly woman took us for an information booth and asked, “Do they mate the gorillas every day?”

“I think they pretty much let the gorillas do what they want.”

Early on one day, a young woman in a zookeepers uniform wandered by carrying a baby gorilla like a two-year-old in her arms. He must have weighed nearly 100 pounds. Around lunchtime, an elephant walked past, guided by two men who had to whip his trunk to prevent him from turning at us and snaffling popcorn. In the afternoon, the gorilla woman went by in the other direction with the gorilla twitching one hand on her breasts.

Bobo all grown up

Bobo all grown up

We sold only a few items. There were the aforementioned drinks, hot dogs, potato chips, popcorn, coffee, crackerjacks, Cheez-twirlz and an abominable nougat candy called Big Hunk. It was our only candy bar and no one seemed to want it, and considering the crap that they were willing to eat, that was surprising.

“What kind of candy you got?”

“Big Hunk,” I said, grinning and holding out a bar.

“Izatall? No thanks.”

And considering what we sold, I was amazed at the naivete of another with-it mother, who asked, “Do your hot dogs have any nitrates? We don’t want any nitrates.”

“Nitrates? I don’t know, but there are some mighty tasty fly legs, and if you look close, you can see the coagulated sputum.”

She also asked if the orange pop was carbonated, apparently wanting to protect her urchin from carbonic acid. She settled on a bag of barbecue potato chips “with no preservatives.”

The hot dogs were made of turkey and spices and anything else, and they sat all day bloating in a steel box of simmering water. When I picked up the little suckers with the tongs, they sometimes disintegrated. But they were better than the buns.

The buns sat in a steamer that hissed and sputtered all day, acting like some volcanic fumerole. If they remained too long, they turned into a finger of wallpaper paste and were as appetizing as jellied snot.

And with the bun steamer blasting, the pup steamer simmering, the coffee machine blustering and the tea pot heating that little trailer was one large Vicks Vaporizer. Steam condensed everywhere and the bottoms of all the shelves dripped, leaving the floor eternally sopping. I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the infernal, brimstone appearance of all that venting steam. At least I enjoyed it the first day.

Meanwhile, I just had to enjoy watching people like the couple who walked toward us from the children’s zoo talking about how cute all the loose animals were. There were peacocks, guinea fowl, mallards, cocks and hens. Then a squirrel jumped out of the bushes and ran right up to the woman stopping just short of hopping on her leg. They stood there, startled, not knowing what to expect. The squirrel twitched his nose suddenly and the wife jumped behind her hubby, screaming and he, no John Wayne, couldn’t think of anything to do. The squirrel had made his point, and feeling reasonably superior, he dived back into the geraniums, looking for another victim.

And yes, I got to eat hot dogs free for lunch.

Woodland Park and Green Lake, 4 decades ago

Woodland Park and Green Lake, 4 decades ago

Of course, the zoo had its share of misfits, people who may well have belonged on the other side of the bars.

There was Bill Cowell, the old relief keeper. He had seniority and could vary his routine, taking care of whatever animals needed help while their regular keeper was sick or on vacation. Bill was getting on and had lost some of his former sharpness, but he still talked over the speed limit.

One day, he brought in a newspaper story about Johnny Weismuller, ex-Tarzan and faded Olympic star. Johnny was in a sanitarium and apparently senile, running through the halls, scaring the other geriatrics with his Tarzan yells. Bill brought out this piece of paper clipped from the Post-Intelligencer and started telling me, “You are too young to remember this guy, but maybe you’ve read about him. Johnny Weismuller, he used to swim in the Olympics. You ever heard of him?”

“Yeah,” I said. “He was Tarzan.”

“Uh-huh. He starred with, uh, Muriel O’Sullivan, I think it was. But you’re too young to know those movies.”

“I saw them all on television.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess they have been on TV. Well, read this. It’s real sad. I guess I’m next. But I really think someone’s trying to make him look crazy to get at his money, you know, like they did with Groucho Marx. I bet he ain’t crazy at all.”

Another time, he endeared himself to me when, on a busy Saturday, with crowds of kids screaming and spilling their popcorn and crying and parents at the end of their patience, he said, as he bought his daily hot dog, “These goddamn kids — Dont’cha just wanna run them over?”zoo bear

As in any retail business, whether it’s a tavern or a hot dog stand, you got to know regular customers by their orders. One regular was Large Pepsi No Ice. He was on the maintenance crew and picked up the mess we caused by handing kids all the paper wrappings they loved to strew across the grounds. LPNI was about 50 with a permanent 5-O’clock shadow and a view of the world honed on his dedication to professional wrestling. He was married but professed to hate his wife, saying so in a tone of voice I understood to be the tenderest expression he was capable of. Or the next tenderest: I remember him saying as he took a break to go over and watch the orangutans, “I’ve got to go see my babies today.”

He loved sports and Seattle was a good city for it. He brought me all the news everyday of his beloved Sonics. He also kept up with the Mariners and Seahawks. He had tickets to the last playoff game between the Sonics and the Lakers, but was torn between going to watch the roundball and watching his favorite wrestler at the Arena. he had tickets to both and finally decided to watch Nasty McGurdle fight Big Anastasio for a while (“There should be lots of blood flowing tonight”) and then move over to the Coliseum to catch the last half of the Sonics game.

We talked about how good it was that the Sonics got rid of Marvin Webster and then how Bob McAdoo was hurting the Celtics by being a one-man team. LPNI Liked McAdoo a lot, however. He explained himself: “McAdoo is like me; I’m a great pig fucker.”

Then there was Eugene. He was also maintenance. He was about 60 and black. He talked about when he used to live in Oakland, but I could tell by his rural accent that he used to live on a farm somewhere before Oakland.

“Yes, yes. I comes from Arkansas.”

He drank five or six cups of coffee a day, paying for maybe two of them. (“How about a heatin’ up for this cup?”)

“I don’ believe in doin’ no work. I never worked in Oakland. I jus’ hustled the streets. Made a good livin’ at it, too. But when I gets to Seattle, I finds a good woman and she makes me get this here job. I don’ mind it much, I guess. It ain’t hard. But this rheumatiz in my neck is gettin’ me. I got to go see a doctor ’bout it. I thinks the bones in my neck is grinding themselves and the marrow is comin’ out, like you see on a hog when the bone is wearin’ and busted. You ever see the marrow of a hog’s bone?”

And to anyone who hangs around them, the people working at the zoo are often just as exotic as the slow loris or Przewalski’s Wild Horse. There is the twitch-eyed monkey keeper who looks like his lion-tailed macaques, the avuncular bear keeper who likes to pitch day-old hot dogs down the bottomless maw of his grizzlies, the tropical-house keeper who has to dig down the throat of a questionably sedated crocodile to pull out the gobs of ingested pennies heedless zoogoers have tossed into his water.

But the oddest zookeeper of all is the night-keeper, who skulks around the grounds in the dark with his flashlight and walkie-talkie.

I met one  one evening just before closing time. We were both leaning over the rail in front of the orangutans.

“Fascinating, aren’t they?,” I asked.

“Oh, hell, they ain’t too fascinating,” he answered in a growling voice of a 50-ish blue-collar man who knows what it is to be an alpha male.

I said I thought he must have been a zookeeper too long, if the animals had lost their appeal.

“Well, I used to think they were fascinating,” he said, “but then I got to know them pretty close. They are stupid.

“As far as evolution goes, the orangs are just hanging on. They aren’t adapted well. They need a specialized habitat and it’s disappearing.”

A staccato of static blasted from his intercom and he answered something back, then stuck it back in the leather holster on his belt.



“Now, I’ve known some pretty smart gorillas, and a lot of mediocre ones, and a few dumb gorillas. And the chimpanzees — I’ve known a whole lot of really smart chimps. There are some stupid chimps, too, but not many. But I’ve never known a smart orang.

“Once, when I was in Sumatra, I was walking out in the brush and this huge male orang came walking up to near where I was. He came to maybe 10 feet from me and I stood stock still so I wouldn’t disturb him. I thought he knew I was there, but wasn’t going to give an inch of his territory. He was the biggest orang I ever saw and he was standing around digging up grasses and roots. He finally walked on without so much as acknowledging my presence.

“That was the start of my fascination with orangs. It wasn’t until years later that I found out the ape got that close to me only because he was too dumb to know what I was and what a threat mankind posed for him.”

“You seem to like the apes,” I said. “Do you know why this zoo doesn’t have any chimpanzees?”

“Well, a few years ago, a political decision was made somewhere in the front office that we didn’t have enough money to support all three great apes, so they decided to get rid of the chimps. It’s always politics that runs things, never what the zoo needs or how we can solve a problem.

“Someone in the administration, who probably had never even been to the zoo, decided to get rid of the chimps. It’s like the new displays that are being built.”

Towan, the male orang in the cage, looked through the glass and offered us some chime from his outstretched lower lip. It’s an orang’s way of saying, “grab a seat, make yourself at home.”

We talked about the new gorilla exhibit, one of those open-ground enclosures that replaced the dingy old glass-front cages that used to be used.

“It’s all political,” the zookeeper said, with some bite in his tone. “These people think it will be better for the gorillas to be out in a more ‘natural habitat.’ But, hell, our gorillas were born in captivity. They’ve never known what it is to be out in the open. We don’t know what will happen; chances are, the gorillas will be freaked out by the change. We introduce stressors in their life, saying it will reduce them. But it is only our own conscience that is calmed. Five of our gorillas were born in captivity. For them the cage is the natural habitat. I’m sure the stress will kill at least one of them. But I was never asked. Someone up front decided it was politically better to give them trees and concrete mountains. At least one will die.

“I guess I’ve been around and I know about as much about departing as anyone on this earth and I know that you don’t die without giving up. That goes for apes and humans, too. No one ever died without giving up somehow. Even a wreck on the freeway means that someone gave up.

“Disease is just partial suicide. You give up part of your will to live and you get sick. The human body was designed to fight off disease. But when you give up, you let the germs and microbes into your system. I haven’t had so much as a cold in seven years. Not that I don’t take care of my body. I eat good foods and keep myself in shape. But I haven’t seen a doctor in a long time and I intend to keep it that way. Doctors are like mechanics. You keep your car healthy and you don’t need one. But if you have a wreck or it breaks down, the mechanic can fix it, but it’s never as good as it once was.

“People get sick because their will is worn down by stressors. Just like the apes will be worn by moving them; they can’t take the stressors.”

Towan tilted his red-haired simian head and began playing peek-a-boo with the remains of the burlap sack he is given daily.

“Like the IRS,” the nightkeeper went on. “Every year they take a little more out of your pay and they figure out some new way to make life harder.

“I wonder if the federal government knows how much disease it causes by not living within its budget.

“It’s not the money they take out. We can afford to pay it, but every year they take a little more and each increase is a stressor and someone gets sick, maybe dies because of the federal government. It’s all politics.”

And somewhere in the increasing dusk, a peacock screeched and it was time to close.

Towan reached his long arms side to side and embraced the glass. Then he climbed up the steel posts that made for trees in his cage and he sat in his roost next to Melati, one of the females.

Sleep well, Towan, I thought. Life could be worse. You could have to file a 1040.