Jerry the smoking St. Louis orangutan


St. Louis still celebrates some of the long-ago residents of its famous zoo. Phil the gorilla. Mr. Moke the chimp. Moby Dick the sea elephant. Siegfried the walrus.

But not Jerry.

This much-photographed orangutan showed up in newspapers across the nation in the 1940s — and even scored appearances in Life magazine and in at least one newsreel.

Today, though, Jerry seems to have been forgotten.

I became curious about Jerry when I spotted an old postcard that showed him in uniform, smoking a cigarette. I made a few inquiries and checked archives.

Here is what I learned.

Saint Louis Zoo records show Jerry was purchased from Frank Buck’s Jungleland in October 1939 along with a female orangutan named Jenny. Both apes were believed to be about four years old.

“Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck was a wild animal collector — and consummate promoter prominent in the 1930s and ’40s. He wrote a popular book and syndicated columns, produced adventure movies and animal shows, and was in charge of the Jungleland show at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. He was a regular supplier of animals to the Saint Louis Zoo and visited often.


A typical Buck adventure with a St. Louis connection unfolded in 1933, when he was in Sumatra, hunting for a mature orangutan — “a really big one” — to feature in his film “Wild Cargo.” Buck recruited about a 100 natives who spotted and chased a big adult — about 5-feet tall with a 9-foot reach — that ended up in a tree with only a few other trees nearby. Buck’s crew chopped down those surrounding trees, built a sturdy cage and waited six days until the starving, frightened ape descended, attempting to escape but ending up in steel nets instead.

But when Buck returned to Johor, Prince Abu Bakar (Sultan Ibrahim) asked for the orangutan, saying he wanted to keep a promise he’d made four years earlier to George Vierheller, the colorful director of the Saint Louis Zoo. The prince bought the orangutan — later named Sultan — for a “very nominal price,” according to Buck, along with the promise that Buck could use the ape “for some animal work I want to do.”  Sultan showed up in St. Louis in February 1934.


Sultan’s arrival was only one of many orangutan stories reported by the St. Louis newspapers, which apparently could not resist a good ape or monkey story.

For example, in 1936, the St. Louis press reported on the arrival of Jiggs, a feisty three-year-old orangutan Vierheller bought from Buck to be a companion to Patti-Sue, also three. (An older orangutan — a replacement for Sultan who, it turns out was “lent” to St. Louis — also was part of the purchase.) Six months later, though, Patti-Sue died — “of a ruptured pulmonary artery,” the Star-Times reported. The paper published a photo of Jiggs as “he moped in his cage” presumably because of Patti-Sue’s death.


The St. Louis Jiggs — or perhaps another Jiggs (there were many primates named Jiggs, including a chimp that played Cheetah in Tarzan movies) — was in Buck’s custody in 1937 when an incident unfolded that became front-page news around the country. In this instance, a riled-up Jiggs cut an elephant named Minnie above the eye with a milk-can lid. Buck had the two animals — and many others — crammed in a railcar headed to Chicago for a department store appearance.

In 1939, three years after Patti-Sue died, her mother, Bimbo, gave birth to another baby that would be named Betsy. Described as the zoo’s “most celebrated baby,” Betsy died 10 months later, apparently after a fall. Bimbo, the Star-Times reported, had to be coaxed to give up Betsy’s body and spent the rest of the day “moping about in its cage.” No worries, though — Vierheller told the newspaper that primates have short memories and “Bimbo will forget Betsy within a few days.”


Jerry, our smoking orangutan, first appears in St. Louis news stories in November 1939, when he was photographed with Mrs. Osa Johnson, widow of wild-game hunter Martin Hunter. She came to St. Louis to lecture on her and her late husband’s adventures and visit some of the animals that they had delivered to the zoo. According to the news stories, Jerry did “flip flops” when Mrs. Johnson lit a cigarette for him. In a photograph that accompanied the story, Jerry’s taking a drag from the cigarette while Mrs. Johnson holds him.


In June 1940, Jerry is one of several new zoo animals featured in the Post-Dispatch Pictures section. He’s standing erect, with a toy rifle and smoking a cigarette. The caption: “Jerry, the orangutan, imbued with martial spirit and equipped with his helmet and popgun, smokes a cigarette as he awaits orders.”

Jerry the smoking “soldier” makes a return appearance in the Post-Dispatch in March 1941: “Jerry, orang-utan of the St. Louis zoo troupe, gave this impression of military preparedness for the photographer.” The photo, taken by an unnamed Post-Dispatch photographer, later was used as a postcard promoting the zoo.

A month later,  Jerry was photographed wearing a helmet and astride a small cannon.  The caption: “Jerry, the orang-utan, joins the artillery.”

Jerry, the Post-Dispatch reported, “has posed as an infantry private and as a general. Yesterday, he entered the artillery. A toy cannon was wheeled up in front of the new ape house and Jerry, wearing a tin helmet, stood behind the howitzer to defend the zoo against attack. Then he fired the gun and the noise scared him right into his keeper’s arms.”

Vierheller was, if anything, a consummate promoter — and he’s credited with turning the zoo into something more than a prison for exotic creatures. He dealt in superlatives — the “biggest,” “fiercest,” “strongest” — and he had a flare for showmanship. The zoo, Life magazine reported in a 1947 “photographic essay,” was known for its “harmonica-playing elephants, praying lions, beer-drinking bears and, above all, for its monkeys.” The zoo’s chimp show — they rode ponies and bicycles and played the xylophone — became nationally known thanks, in part, to newsreels. Stories about the zoo’s animals were picked up by the wire services and national magazines.


Instead of discouraging Jerry’s smoking habit, Vierheller promoted it — even giving the ape his own lit cigars. In 1945, Post-Dispatch photographer Jack Gould did a spread on the “Zoo Smoker,” showing Jerry in various poses with his cigar. In one photo, Vierheller offers a “lighted stogie to Jerry.” Jerry, the Post-Dispatch reported, has learned to light his own cigars with a match, and also “catch a light, chain fashion, from a smoke about to be discarded.”

Jenny, the female orangutan who was acquired in 1939 along with Jerry, also developed a tobacco habit, but appears to have preferred eating cigarettes and cigars rather than smoking them. When Jenny had a baby in 1946, keepers moved her and her offspring to an inside cage so that zoo visitors couldn’t throw cigarettes at her. “One tobacco addict among his orangutan charges is enough, Zoo Head Keeper Frank Florsek decided,” the Post-Dispatch reported.

Jerry got another spread in the Post-Dispatch in February 1948, and again photographer Jack Gould highlighted the ape’s smoking habit. The headline: “Sophisticate: Jerry, the Orangutan Is Hail Fellow, Engaging Moocher, Has Fondness for Cigars.”

In June 1948, a photo of Jerry smoking a cigar, under the headline “Honest, Doc, I Really Saw It,” is carried by newspapers across the United States. The caption read, in part, “the beast had it lit and was nonchalantly puffing like a freight engine going uphill. And the director there, George P. Vierheller, says this big ape, Jerry, does it every day. Who’s crazy, Doc, me or the monk?”

A few days after smoking Jerry hit the wires, smoking Jenny follows suit, thanks to Vierheller. The zoo director is shown in a widely circulated photo lighting up a cigar and handing it to Jenny, who is said to be pregnant.

Just four months later, in October 1948, Jerry is dead, according to zoo records. The cause of death is unknown. There’s no news story or obituary.


In February 1950, Jenny — or Jennie, as her name is spelled in some accounts — has a cameo appearance in a column about Vierheller in the Post-Dispatch by Ralph Coghlan: “George put a handful of cigars in his pocket and said he had to visit Jennie, the orang-utan, to pass out her after-breakfast stogie. So we went. Jennie stuck her hand through the bars, took a lighted cigar, daintily tasted the ash and then rolled over on her back, feet in air, to smoke El Ropo in comfort. (Jennie smokes about five of them a day.)”


In April 1954, Jenny is national news — this time, because she’s been forced to quit cigars. It wasn’t Jenny’s welfare, however, that was behind this change in policy — it was Vierheller’s. He’s decided to quit smoking himself. According to the Associated Press short carried in dozens of newspaper, the orangutan expected “her first smoke” when Vierheller returned from a vacation, but he no longer was carrying cigars. “I’m not going to be tempted by carrying cigars,” he told a reporter.  Jenny died on May 27, 1955, around the age of 20.

Both Jerry and Jenny died young. The median life expectancy of an orangutan is between 28 to 30, based on data provided by zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

Vierheller, described by the Post-Dispatch as “the greatest St. Louis booster since Pierre Laclede,” a “master of public relations,” and the man who made the Saint Louis Zoo “world famous,” retired in 1962 and died four years later.

Dickson Terry, in a lengthy, admiring remembrance in the Post-Dispatch, wrote the zoo was Vierheller’s life — and, as evidence, noted that the zoo director’s Clayton home was packed with mementoes of the creatures that used to entertain visitors — the skin of an alpaca, a polar bear rug, a wastebasket made of an elephant’s foot, stuffed heads, horns and antlers, a lion skin carpet, a stuffed python.

“For Vierheller,” Terry wrote, “a zoo hardly justifies its existence if it is merely a collection of animals sleeping or pacing behind iron bars. He decided St. Louisans were going to have fun with their zoo.”

Postscript: Jerry and Jenny were hardly the only orangutans to acquire the smoking habit in captivity. The Cleveland Zoo had Chang in the 1960s. When Susie went cold turkey at the Pittsburgh Zoo in 1967, it was national news. Yogi, who smoked cigarettes at the Como Zoo in St. Paul, died of a blood clot in his lungs in 1984. In Malaysia, Shirley the orangutan got hooked when visitors threw lit cigarettes into her enclosure: Authorities removed her from the zoo in 2011. Tori had the same problem in Indonesia: Zookeepers had to remove the orangutan in 2012 because visitors threw lit cigarettes into her cage. In 2018, Bandung Zoo in Indonesia came under sharp criticism after a visitor after Ozon the orangutan was recorded smoking a cigarette thrown by a visitor

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Chimps also have been encouraged to smoke. Azalea, described as the star attraction at the Central Zoo in Pyongyang, North Korea, lights and smokes cigarettes, but zoo officials claim she doesn’t inhale

Post-postscript: After Ringling Brothers announced on Jan. 14, 2017 it would end its operations, PETA warned zoos were next. That prompted Saint Louis Zoo President and CEO Jeffrey P. Bonner to write a letter to the Post-Dispatch. Zoos, he wrote, are “not circuses but safe havens for many species that are being hunted to extinction or that have no habitat left in the wild.” That effort to raise awareness is on display at the modern zoo, including at the “Jungle of the Apes.” Today, the Bornean orangutan is considered “endangered” and the Sumatran is “critically endangered,” the World Wildlife Fund reports. The world’s orangutan population has dropped by more than two-thirds in the past century.

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© 2017 Roland Klose. All rights reserved.

(Originally published on Jan. 20, 2017)

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