It’s for no small reasons that our fair city is often called “The Home of Zoo Hoaxes.” What follows are the Eight Great Zoo Hoaxes, as determined by the Board of Directors of the Zoo Hoax Historical Society, an informal group that keeps track of this odd aspect of our city’s heritage.
A Zoo In Every Home (1911)
As an April Fool’s prank in 1911, the Sun-Recorder published an extensive series of articles and (cleverly doctored) photographs in its “Homes & Gardens” section detailing what it believed would be the next great status symbol of the still-burgeoning Twentieth Century middle class – The Home Zoo. Where most rural homes and even quite a few urban ones were expected to keep chickens, goats and other small livestock on its property, the Sun-Recorder reported that popular mail-order outfit Sears & Roebuck was offering for sale an entire series of zoo packages, including delivery and installation of cages suited for atrium, living room and kitchen, as well as guaranteed live delivery of lions, tigers, bears, elephants, monkeys and apes. The “Big Thing for 1911” prompted literally thousands of eager calls and telegrams to Sears & Roebuck, primarily from outlying communities to which paper delivery was often several days late and who therefore had missed the significance of the April 1st publishing date.
The All-Dog Zoo (1927)
Allan Goodling, writer for the Evening Ledger, was tolerated in the bullpen for his occasional flights of fancy, including this fantastical feat of reporting from the age of flappers. Goodling reported that – since to foreign eyes our common dogs were as exotic as rare birds and beasts – local entrepreneurs were establishing a zoo, harboring an exhibition of well over two hundred breeds of popular dogs, including the Boston Terrier and Collie, with the express purpose of creating a tourist destination for visitors from around the world. Goodling went so far as to create a wholly fictional celebrity exhibit, a tame Mastiff named “Darling” who stood a reported four feet at the shoulder, and was fed three bushels of rabbits at mealtime. Despite leaving the specific address of the Dog Zoo out of his article – a clear indication of the hoax – the Evening Ledger nonetheless received more than four hundred calls from local citizens wishing to attend the opening day festivities, including the mayor’s office and the Director of the Society of Benevolence.
Animal Panic (1941)
With Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio drama still ringing in many ears, it was perhaps foolish for a local NBC affiliate radio station to stage a dramatization of a massive escape of animals from both regional zoos. For the following two hours, reports were issued of lions mauling shoppers in the Central Corridor & Downtown district, of baboons tormenting children at the Mabel Tripp Gardens nursery center, and of Mayor Dixon Webster Dell crushed to death by rhinos. As if to make matters worse, unlike the War of the Worlds dramatization, at no point was the performance interrupted to assure listeners that none of this was happening. Photos of armed citizens taking to the streets in order to hunt errant, violent gorillas and lions are currently on display at the Zoo Hoax Historical Society.
The Nazi Zoo (1943)
Patriotic activists supporting an intervention in the European conflict of the 1940s took to the streets around the Bleeker Avenue Financial District one week in August, bearing with them enlarged photographic cutouts of several prominent Nazi leaders behind painted, cardpaper bars. The displays were meant to underline the inhuman nature of “hideous Nazi beasts,” and to incite emotions among the crowd – the display worked too well, perhaps, as confused Canadian wire services began reporting that actual Nazi commanders had really been captured and were being displayed on city streets in the United States. A photograph of the “Verminus Himmlerus” accompanied the report, which was repeated in papers as far away as Rome before corrections were properly issued.
Zoo On The Menu (1949)
Inspired by the possibly-apocryphal origins of the Mean Harbor Aquarium and Ravi’s Fish Restaurants, upper-crust eating establishment Rocco’s on Dempsey Street SE announced that it had struck a deal with local zoos, aquariums, pet stores and shelters to purchase “overstock animals” for special plates and dinner events. Assuring the public that “only the freshest, youngest, healthiest” zoo animals would be served up on a platter, Rocco’s advertised the inauguration of the deal with a special “Elephant Parmagiana” plate. Although the restaurant did receive a great deal of negative attention from the prank, it’s worth noting that most of the angry letters-to-the-editor printed in the Clarion-Standard in the following few days had been penned by potential patrons upset to find that there would be no actual elephant on their plates.
The Beatnik Zoo (1966)
Office workers stepping out for their lunch break near the Courthouse District in early October 1966 were greeted by a surprising display – cages lined up along both sidewalks surrounding Campbell Plaza, each containing beatniks, hippies, longhairs and other turtlenecked, bare-footed examples of the youth counter-culture of the day. Bearing bronzed plaques on the front of the cages identifying the exhibits as “Freethinkus Nonoppressus” and “Poeticus Keruoacus,” the stunt was a performance art piece manufactured by a local alternative theatre group, The Pilots of the Mind, who staged the event in order to “expose the gray flannel suburban mediocrity to the wild freedom of pure thought and love in the kind of environment that the institution makes them understand.” Whatever the intentions, police carted away two paddy wagons full of the performing radicals, who were then treated to a slightly different type of cage in the county lockup.
The Zoo Under The Golden Arches (1975)
In an echoing of the “Zoo In Every Home” hoax (see above), college pranksters in 1975 issued a press release which seemingly originated from McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, to every newspaper and media outlet in town. Trumpeting the recent success of the installation of playgrounds within many McDonald’s locations, the hoaxers announced that many area McDonald’s would soon feature “Fully-staffed zoos” exhibiting between five and twenty animals in each location. Also announced was the introduction of the ‘Zoo Meal,’ which obliquely suggested that animals from unpopular attractions would be ground up into special offer burgers. The McDonalds corporation successfully sued six area news outlets for defamation in the subsequent court cases.
Mayor Blinkums (1988)
A 1988 promotional campaign for the Mean Harbor Aquarium saw the institution’s six-year old sea lion Blinkums embark on a fictional campaign for mayor, hosting the ‘talkative’ and trained mammal on a series of high-visibility “whistle stops” throughout the city. The campaign was successful in more ways than simply increasing Aquarium attendance and pushing merchandise emblazoned with Blinkum’s friendly visage – Blinkums ended up taking 3% of the subsequent mayoral vote via write-ins, which the News declared meant “people clearly like the way Mister Blinkums thinks!”
The Zoo Hoax Historical Society is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 3pm, and is located at the corner of Ambrose Blvd and 44th Ave. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged at the door.
– Jonathan Morris