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Written by Francisco Alvarado and Erik Bojnansky; Cover and spread photos by Silvia Ros   
April 2018

Jungle Island: Pleasant for people, not so much for animals

After years of problems with its animals, Jungle Island is set to reopen with a new theme, no big cats, and one less orangutan

OCoverShot_0001fficials with Jungle Island hope to reopen their gates in a few weeks and lure in visitors with new adrenaline-pumping experiences to complement the more than 500 animals on exhibit.

The bayside tourist attraction on Watson Island has been closed since Hurricane Irma brushed South Florida with its monster winds and punishing storm surge in early September. The historic storm leveled more than 200 trees and ravaged its botanical gardens, says Chris Gould, Jungle Island’s managing director. Irma also partially lifted the roof off the Treetop Ballroom, resulting in water penetrating the interior walls and carpeted floors.

“The damage was pretty extensive,” Gould tells Biscayne Times. “We lost our largest trees. The botanical gardens is where we took it on the chin. It certainly reduced the attraction value of Jungle Island.”

So for the past eight months, employees and construction crews have been busy making repairs to the Treetop Ballroom, replenishing the park’s lost flora, and building new amenities, like an indoor state-of-the-art trampoline park, an aerial rope-course experience called Tree Walk Village, an outdoor skydiving wind tunnel, and escape rooms.

By early February, the ballroom was back in business hosting events, and before spring ends, the park should be fully operational again, says Gould.

Despite the new heart-pounding attractions, the managing director promises that Jungle Island remains committed to its roots as an exotic-animal haven.

“A lot of the investment we’re doing now is to raise the bar even further,” he explains. “In our plans for the future, we’re focusing on having incredible animal habitats -- everything we can do to elevate to incredible standards for the visitors and for the animals’ own enrichment and stimulation.”

Cover_1_LeadShot_0017Yet some familiar animals won’t be around to greet visitors and partake in the changes. Ten big cats -- including Mahesh the Bengal tiger who escaped from his enclosure in 2010, and the world’s largest cat, 922-pound “liger” Hercules -- that lived part of the year at Jungle Island were sent back to their owner, Mahamayavi Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, an exotic animal wrangler who owns and operates a much-maligned wildlife tourist attraction in South Carolina called Myrtle Beach Safari.

“Generally speaking, large animals don’t fit our footprint,” Gould says. “We don’t have a lot of room. The cats are no longer here, and there are no plans to have them return.”

An even more unsettling development took place less than eight weeks ago. On February 11, a Jungle Island employee discovered the lifeless body of Jake the orangutan in his enclosure. One of six orangutans at Jungle Island and a fixture at the animal park since birth, the 300-pound ape died just two weeks before his 18th birthday, Gould says. An autopsy performed by Jungle Island veterinarian Jason Chatfield concluded that cardiopulmonary distress claimed Jake’s last breath, but he’d been fighting respiratory problems for more than two months, the managing director adds.

“Jake was our largest orangutan, and the alpha male of the group,” Gould says. “He was a real charismatic animal. He was someone everybody in the park felt they had a relationship with him. It has been a really tough time for the whole Jungle Island family.”

The departure of the big cats, and Jake’s sudden death amid the development of new diversions, constitute the latest chapter in Jungle Island’s continuously evolving history from roadside parrot show tucked inside a Miami-Dade suburb to a quasi-theme park facing Biscayne Bay.

Cover_2Since relocating from Pinecrest to Watson Island in 2003, Jungle Island -- previously known as Parrot Jungle and Parrot Jungle Island -- has earned a spotty animal-welfare record, lost its accreditation with the world’s preeminent zoo and aquarium organization, and has faced withering criticism from animal rights groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.

But the attraction has garnered some positive headlines as well, stories about pulling out all the stops to treat ailing animals, as well as teaching its orangutans to use iPads. In May 2012, the six orangutans were given the tablets as part of a mental stimulus program in hopes of having them communicate with humans. However, only two orangutans, eight-year-old fraternal twins Pumpkin and Peanut, showed interest in the devices.

Also in 2012, caretakers noticed that Peanut was lethargic, not eating, and not going to the bathroom. During emergency surgery to treat an intestinal obstruction, a tissue sample was removed for biopsy and confirmed to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the orangutan underwent several rounds of chemotherapy (she is now in remission).

In 2016 the medical staff ordered a full-body CT scan on Casper, a 19-year-old leucistic (white) alligator with a history of melanoma. The 13-foot gator had lost his appetite and had dropped in weight.

Still, critics say the number of incidents documenting poor animal care outpace the times Jungle Island has gone the extra mile to provide medical treatment for the creatures in its care.

“Jungle Island’s horrible record of animal welfare violations speaks for itself,” says Brittany Peet, the director of captive law enforcement with the PETA Foundation. “It’s a roadside zoo and it’s no surprise it has so many complaints about animal care.”

Gould emphatically refutes Peet’s accusations. “The welfare of the animals is our paramount responsibility,” he says. “Everything we do is constantly measured and evaluated in terms of where the animals live, how they live, what their diet is, and what type of enrichment they get with other animals.”


ACover_3dventure Island, the transformed facility, isn’t yet operational, but its history has spanned more than 85 years. Its original name was Parrot Jungle, its main original attraction was parrots, and its founder was an Austrian-born carpenter named Franz Scherr.

In 1925, after earning a decent living remodeling and building houses in Chicago, Scherr brought his family to South Florida to try his hand as a real estate developer. The 1926 hurricane dashed his hopes and his savings. But Scherr was able to retain some farmland and eventually opened a feed store in Homestead.

Among his regular customers was Joe DuMond, who founded Monkey Jungle on ten acres of south Miami-Dade land in 1933. Scherr liked to talk, a lot, and to give DuMond unsolicited advice, according to author Cory Gittner in the book Miami’s Parrot Jungle and Gardens: The Colorful History of an Uncommon Attraction. On one particular day, after staying up all night caring for a sick monkey, DuMond wasn’t in the mood to hear Scherr tell him how he should cut more trails, or hire tour guides, or put up signs identifying trees.

“Oh, why don’t you go start your own damn jungle,” an exasperated DuMond told Scherr.

“All right, I will,” Scherr replied, “and it will be a parrot jungle.”

Cover_4Scherr already kept a macaw named Zebra, a few parakeets, and some songbirds in his store -- all bartered by customers in exchange for goods. But he wasn’t a bird expert. He made a deal to lease an 18-acre wooded area for $25 a month, property that had once served as a nudist colony at what is today Pinecrest Gardens on SW 57th Avenue. And then he proceeded to learn all he could about parrots, vegetation, and roadside attractions.

Scherr also put his wife Louise and their three five young children to work helping him clear brush. When little progress was made after two months, Scherr mortgaged his house and land in Homestead to buy machinery and hire work crews to clear paths and construct a multipurpose log building of Dade County pine. He also bought macaws from Laredo, Texas (the first shipment of birds died from carbon monoxide poisoning en route).

In 1936, Scherr finally opened his Parrot Jungle. The animal menagerie consisted of 26 macaws, a white peacock, a ringed-tailed caged monkey named Susie, three species of pheasants, a de-scented skunk, a raccoon, a South American coatimundi, a pond filled with koi, and an alligator named Mae West. Admission cost a quarter. On the first day, a hundred people showed up and left happy. The guests were even amused by the blue and purple land crabs that came with the property.

“Even the optimist Scherr was shocked,” wrote Gittner. “He had made enough to cover a month’s rent.”

Within a year, Parrot Jungle attracted 10,000 people. Scherr used the profits to buy more parrots, add a flock of flamingos, make improvements to the property (including more tree plantings, new ponds and lakes, and new buildings and theaters), and hire non-family employees. He also trained the parrots to do tricks, including riding bicycles. By 1940 he’d made enough to buy the 18-acres outright for $5000. And in 1946, Parrot Jungle became world famous when Winston Churchill, having resigned as Britain’s prime minister the previous year, visited the theme park twice and even posed with a friendly cockatoo named Butch. By 1952 the park, which had expanded to 31 acres, attracted nearly 100,000 people. By the 1970s, annual attendance was around 400,000.

The park reportedly never lost money, but attendance plummeted as Walt Disney World near Orlando gained popularity. By the 1980s, potential buyers were making offers. Some were developers interested in building real estate. And Franz’s adult children, who’d vowed not to involve their own children in the Parrot Jungle venture, started listening.

“Having a piece of property that’s worth eight or ten million dollars and making $100,000 a year on it is a bad investment,” explains Bernard Levine, a veterinarian who used to breed birds and primates at Last Chance Farm in rural Kendall.

Cover_5Levine was among those who wanted to buy Parrot Jungle. Raised in South Miami-Dade, he says he visited Parrot Jungle as a kid and even learned how to train parakeets from a Parrot Jungle trainer. He would later sell parrots on occasion to Parrot Jungle.

By 1980 he was negotiating with Jerome Scherr, Franz’s youngest son and the park’s general manager, to buy the place. Levine tells the BT that his main reason for wanting to buy the park was to keep Parrot Jungle alive. Finally, in September 1989, he teamed up with Richard Schubot, an entrepreneur who owned around a thousand parrots at his Loxahatchee estate, and bought the Parrot Jungle company and land from the Scherr family for an undisclosed amount. “Both of us loved parrots,” says Levine. “We didn’t expect to make money and that’s what happened.”

Sadly, less than nine years after the sale, Jerome Scherr and his brother, Francis, would be dead. The body of 71-year-old Francis, who’d been ill with cancer, was found near the entrance of Parrot Jungle in early 1997. He’d shot himself in the head. Jerome, who traveled the country after the sale, was diagnosed with cancer in 1996 just as he and his wife were about to visit Hawaii. He died two years later at age 69.

Following their 1989 acquisition of the property, Levine and Schubot renamed the park Parrot Jungle and Gardens. At the time of the purchase, Parrot Jungle consisted of around 1100 parrots of a wide range of breeds and species, some flamingos, and a couple of alligators. The new owners decided to mix it up. “From his breeding facilities, Levine brought in orangutans, gibbons, and baby chimps for display,” according to author Gittner. They added more reptiles, planted vegetation, and threw in a petting zoo.

Levine says he wanted to make sure he could get customers who weren’t necessarily interested in seeing parrots. “I felt we had to do something to encourage people that this was not just about parrots,” he explains.

The gambit worked, at least for a while. Although they raised admission prices a dollar, to $9.50 for adults and $5 for children, visitors totaled about 330,000 in their first year, compared to the typical 225,000 or so the park received during the early to mid-1980s, Levine says.

Cover_6But things weren’t rosy forever. When Levine threw more events and parties to drum up business, nearby residents complained about the noise and took him to court. The county commission, meanwhile, rejected his plans to build new buildings and expand hours. Without the extra hours and structures, Levine says, it was impossible to run a successful park.

“We just couldn’t resolve it,” Levine sighs. Parrot Jungle Gardens also took a $1 million-plus hit in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew, which felled century-old trees and closed the park for several weeks.

In 1994, the same year his partner Schubot died at the age of 66 following a stroke, Levine sold 9.5 unused acres on the property’s western edge to home builders Brookman-Fels for $2.5 million. The company later built a dozen luxury homes on the site.

In 1995, Levine announced his intention to move Parrot Jungle and Gardens to land owned by the City of Miami on Watson Island. When Parrot Jungle finally moved off the remaining 22.5 wooded acres in 2002, Levine sold the property to the Village of Pinecrest for $12.5 million. The village, which incorporated in 1996, turned the acreage into a public park called Pinecrest Gardens.

Why move to Watson Island? Levine says he wanted to be closer to the actual City of Miami. He’d also been lobbied to move to Watson Island as early as 1991 by City of Miami Mayor Stephen Clark and Commissioner JL Plummer.

“I’m not a real estate person,” says veterinarian Levine, “but I would tell you, you would have to be almost brain dead to not like Watson Island. It’s close to the ocean and it’s on the causeway.”

But Levine, who now had real estate investor Ronald Krongold as a partner, soon discovered that moving the park to the 18-acre Watson Island site was far more challenging than he realized. “When we got over there, it was a mess,” he remembers. “We did a referendum in 1995 to get a [60-year] lease, and it took us eight years before we could open.... There was no water or sewer or electric.”

Nor was there decent soil. In order to re-create the lush environment that had existed at Parrot Jungle’s previous home, Jeff Shimonski, the park’s horticulturalist between 1975 and 2014, hauled in 800 tons of compost. And while the old 30-acre site in Pinecrest had natural water sources, the Parrot Jungle had to buy municipal water. “We used wells in Pinecrest for our lawn and paid $300 or $400 a month,” Levine says. “On Watson Island, we were paying $12,000 a month.”

Cover_7The new facility, which would eventually be renamed Jungle Island, cost $56 million to build. The City of Miami and Miami-Dade County pitched in by backing a $25 million loan from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Levine added more animals to Jungle Island’s repertoire, including a Komodo dragon, a rare crocodile, and a half-dozen or so big cats. Those predatory felines included a couple of Bengal tigers and at least one 900-pound tiger-lion hybrid, known as a liger, that Jungle Island rented from Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina. (Hercules and Vulcan, reportedly liger siblings, did tours at Jungle Island on a rotating basis.)

Prior to the name change and its opening in 2003, local leaders predicted Jungle Island would earn $1 million in profits in its first year. Instead it was $2.5 million in debt at year’s end. The busy hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 further harmed attendance. Not helping were visitor complaints in the media and on travel sites like Trip Advisor about the park’s high parking and admission fees that reached as much as $50 per person. As a result, instead of attracting 750,000 people a year as first predicted, Jungle Island saw under 500,000 a year.

Levine insists that most people who visited the park were admitted at half price or even for free. “From day one, military and police were admitted for free, firemen for free, schoolteachers for free,” he recollects. He also held galas that raised money for charities at the Island’s banquet halls.

At the same time, Levine complains, Jungle Island wasn’t propped up by taxpayer money like Zoo Miami, the renowned 750-acre county-owned attraction that only charges $18.95 for children and $22.95 for adults. Instead, Jungle Island had to make annual rent payments to the City of Miami of at least $400,000 a year, loan payments of $2 million a year to HUD, and other expenses for utilities.

“It’s really tough to have a theme park in Miami that’s sort of an outdoor adventure,” says Levine, “because the cards are really stacked against you.”

So tough that the park fell behind on its rent, loan, and even property tax payments. To prevent a default, the county ended up paying some of the HUD installments while the City of Miami paid the tax bill. Many of those expenses were repaid. However, as of 2017, Jungle Island still owed the county more than $13.4 million.

Levine and Krongold hoped to work out a new deal with the city and county that would enable them to build a hotel, a major zip-line feature, and a water park. But faced with financial ruin, that dream would have to be left to new owners. In April 2017, they sold the park to ESJ Capital Partners, an Aventura-based company backed by European investors that has a portfolio of $500 million in real estate. The $60 million transaction included taking on $45 million in debt.

It was an outcome that didn’t please Levine. “It was excruciating,” he says. “I really felt like I was a big part of that park and a lot of the changes that came with it.” Still, the sale was “something that needed to happen and it happened at the right time with the right people.”


FCover_8or zoos, theme parks, and tourist attractions that want to be taken seriously as providers of world-class animal care, receiving accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) is a globally recognized stamp of approval. Less than ten percent of the 2800 wildlife exhibitors licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act meet the comprehensive standards of AZA accreditation, according to the non-profit’s website. Zoo Miami, Busch Gardens in Tampa, and Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee are some of the Florida venues with AZA accreditation.

At one point in its history, Jungle Island was also accredited by the AZA. According to a 2003

Levine tells the BT that the real reason AZA stripped Parrot Jungle’s accreditation was his refusal to participate in some of the organization’s requirements, and his background as a pet food distributor. “I told them I’m a pet person first,” Levine recollects. “I actually believe that people who have pets do the best job of taking care of animals. Now, are there people [pet owners] who do terrible jobs? Yes. But my main business was the pet business. It was distribution and dog food supplies. And I think that was the wrong answer to give at the time.”

The AZA can force facilities to ship an animal to other venues with the same animals for breeding purposes. “We know that if you belong to the AZA, the organization determines who keeps what animals,” Levine says. “They also told me not to have orangutans or a number of different things. They wanted me to give them to another zoo. That didn’t sit well with me.”

Gould, Jungle Island’s managing director, says the whole purpose of obtaining AZA accreditation is to become a “genetic Noah’s ark” to hedge against extinction of animal species throughout the world. “If you have a leopard that would be a good genetic match with a leopard in Houston, you would send it to the other institution to grow that genetic line,” he explains. “Much of our lines are genetic misfits. They’re not pure. Most of our orangutans are considered hybrid.”

Cover_9The AZA doesn’t breed mixed animals, he says, and Jungle Island would have been forced to change its wildlife collection radically. “Our vision is that we want to be a really high-quality, permanent home for animals in our care,” he adds. “Many don’t have other places to go because they’re genetic mutations or came from the pet trade.” He also notes Jungle Island doesn’t breed any of the animals the park owns.

AZA spokesman Rob Vernon declined comment for this story. “Due to our confidentiality policies with our accreditation process,” he says, “I’m not able to disclose any information about their previous accreditation inspections or the reasons for denial.”

Since losing its AZA certification, Jungle Island obtained accreditation from the Zoological Association of America, or ZAA, a 60-member organization founded in 2003 that has been dismissed as a program created by private exotic-animal dealers and breeders. According to an April 2016 article on the Big Cats Rescue website, the ZAA promotes breeding of exotic animals that can’t be traced back to the wild and thus could never serve any conservation value. 

A fact sheet put out by the Humane Society of the United States accuses ZAA of being a “a fringe group with weak standards that endorses poorly run roadside zoos, traveling zoos, and private menageries, and promotes the private ownership of exotic pets as well as the commercialization of wildlife.”

Levine, who made the decision to sign up with the ZAA, did not want to answer questions about animal rights groups’ complaints.

Cover_10Enforcement of Jungle Island’s requirements that are mandated by the Animal Welfare Act falls on the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “Investigators routinely conduct inspections of captive wildlife facilities to ensure humane treatment and sanitary conditions are in place for the animals,” says Florida Fish and Wildlife spokesman Rob Klepper. “Investigators also inspect to ensure that cage and security requirements are followed to ensure public safety.”

In addition, wildlife facilities must maintain all records on the acquisition and disposition of animals, which must be made available to inspectors, Klepper says. Between January 1, 2013, and August 30, 2017, state Fish and Wildlife documented no violations at Jungle Island during unannounced inspection visits, notes Shawn Boston, an investigator in the FWC Captive Wildlife Office.

Yet USDA inspection reports show that the federal agency cited Jungle Island for 15 violations between 2003 and 2016. The park received no violation notices in 2017. Richard Andrew Bell, a USDA spokesman, says federal law also requires unannounced inspections and that all licensed facilities like Jungle Island maintain medical records on their animals.

“If an animal dies, a disposition record would be kept,” Bell says. “During an inspection, the inspector would look at all those records to see if there were any AWA non-compliances.”

The medical records aren’t available to the public, however, and their release is at the discretion of the state and federal agencies. “You can request a copy of necropsy reports from the facility,” Bell says. “But again, they don’t have to provide them, or they may choose to do so.” Both state and federal animal welfare laws do not require zoos, theme parks, and exotic-animal attractions to report deaths to regulatory agencies, much less the media.

Animal rights activists argue that the state and federal agencies charged with enforcing animal welfare laws aren’t doing enough. “Unfortunately, USDA and Fish and Wildlife are notorious for failing to live up to their obligations under the law,” says Brittany Peet, PETA’s captive law enforcement director. “When we look at their records, we do so with a grain of salt because facilities that provide poor animal welfare often get a clean bill.”

Peet says her organization typically relies on concerned citizens or employees to act as whistleblowers.

Klepper says Fish and Wildlife works hard to promote and enforce responsible ownership of captive wildlife. “It’s the goal of the FWC to develop the best regulations possible that provide for public safety, animal welfare, and the legitimate use of wildlife for educational, exhibition, or personal purposes,” he says. “Florida’s captive wildlife regulations are among the most stringent in the nation.”

Peet claims that Jungle Island could do more to gain the public trust by putting out information about the animals it cares for, especially when they become gravely ill, like Jake, and die.

“The orangutan dying doesn’t necessarily mean the facility did anything wrong,” Peet says. “He could have cancer and they did all they could to save him. But it raises red flags when there’s no information about it. We certainly would want to know more, such as the cause of death, the underlying medical diagnosis, and how long the orangutan was diagnosed.”

Jungle Island hasn’t had any problem disclosing information on sick animals in the past, and indeed sought publicity when it needed to treat Casper the alligator and Peanut the orangutan. Moreover, in 2004 Jungle Island was quick to alert the media when its three-year-old orangutan named Millie, who was the only known primate with cerebral palsy, died. “Since her birth, Millie has brought great joy to us,” Levine said in press release. “We were fortunate to be part of her brief life.”

Gould says Jungle Island made a management decision to inform only the people who knew Jake about his death because the park isn’t in operation and the orangutan wasn’t as well-known to the public -- despite having been on display for all of his 18 years. “Institutions choose when they want to communicate an animal’s passing to the public,” Gould says. “Ours was focused on notifying those who knew him and cared about him.”

Some facilities, such as Zoo Miami, which is owned by Miami-Dade County, do announce the births and deaths of popular animals by sending out press releases. For instance, last year Zoo Miami notified local news outlets about the sudden death of Lisa, a 44-year-old African elephant who had arrived at the facility from the Virginia Zoo in 2016. Also last year, Zoo Miami sent out news releases about the euthanization of Josephine, a female gorilla who was the grandmother of Harambe, a gorilla exhibited at the Cincinnati Zoo who was shot and killed in 2016 after a three-year-old boy fell into his enclosure.

However, reporting the death of an animal is done on a case-by-case basis, says Zoo Miami spokesman Ron Magill: “We’re not obviously going to report the death of every frog or bird. But if a marquee animal dies, we’ll put out a release. It’s up to my judgment, and it’s not an exact science.”


The 25-cent price of admission wasn’t the only source of revenue for Parrot Jungle when it first opened in 1936. The Scherr family had a snack bar, a gift shop where items made from coral, shells, and bird feathers were sold, and there was a pond filled with baby alligators. The baby gators weren’t permanent residents. They were sold at 25 cents apiece. “Guests would point out which alligator they wanted, and it was placed in a cardboard carton for the trip home,” according to author Cory Gittner. Hundreds of baby alligators were reportedly sold to giddy Northern tourists, “although no one knows what ultimately happened to the pet alligators.”

Gittner didn’t say when the practice of selling baby alligators ended at Parrot Jungle, or if any other living creatures were ever sold there. Parrots, however, were not sold at Parrot Jungle. In fact, following a temporary wing clipping (from which the parrots eventually recovered) and a feeding process developed by founder Franz Scherr, the parrots were often let out of their cages and allowed to roam freely. For decades, flocks of parrots flew within a radius of ten miles of Parrot Jungle. Most of the time they returned home to their roosts.

By the 1970s, many of Scherr’s avian residents included birds that had been seized by U.S. Customs from alleged smugglers accused of snatching macaws and cockatoos from the wild to later sell to pet stores.

And since the 1960s, Parrot Jungle has been accepting parrots from people who found out that their pet parrots, while pretty, highly intelligent, and capable of mimicking human speech, are also prone to shrieking, attacking other pets, or self-mutilating. In an October 1982 interview with the Miami Herald, Jerome Scherr, then Parrot Jungle’s general manager, even issued this warning to anyone wanting a parrot as a pet: “When people ask my advice, I say, ‘Do you want to have a baby? Because that’s what it amounts to, having another baby -- and they don’t grow up.’”

Bernard Levine notes that allowing parrots to fly free in Florida was actually illegal, although the state grandfathered Parrot Jungle, so long as the birds didn’t leave the park. When Levine bought the park, free flying was gradually curtailed then stopped.

Instead, a new practice started: the selling of parrots on park grounds, for between $20 and $20,000. That practice was slammed not only by animal rights activists, but also by wildlife experts like Zoo Miami’s Ron Magill. “Parrots are wild and do not make good pets,” he told Miami New Times in October 2003.

Levine, who is a long-time bird breeder, disagrees. If the potential owner knows what he or she is getting into, then owning a parrot is a rewarding experience. “I think anyone in that business, legitimately, always says, ‘Listen, this is a long-term path, and it will have some challenges.’”

Nevertheless, the park stopped selling parrots in January 2004, not because of any outcry, Levine insists, but because they just didn’t sell well.

Selling parrots was not the park’s last brush with controversy. A tiger escape in August 2010 received national media coverage after it not only terrified visitors but also purportedly came within ten feet of a toddler. According to a USDA report, the incident occurred when “a non-human primate” (a gibbon named Watson) had escaped his own cage and entered the tiger’s enclosure. When Watson spotted the tiger, named Mahesh, he bolted. Mahesh leapt after it. “The tiger was able to scale a 12-foot tall corner, engage and damage the kick back and subsequently escape over the top of the enclosure,” a USDA report stated.

The report claimed the enclosure wasn’t strong enough to house tigers. Levine counters that this was a freak event that occurred when an employee failed to properly lock the gibbon’s cage. Watson the Gibbon then got the tiger “super charged up and he just hit the gate,” Levine says. The enclosure, he says, was also built beyond USDA regulations, which at the time only specified a ten-foot-high fence. Following the incident, a 20-foot-tall fence was installed. The tiger, he adds, was quickly recaptured by his trainer and Jungle Island staff. (Media reports said that the tiger was loose for 20 minutes.)

The tiger incident wasn’t the only time Jungle Island ran afoul of the USDA. The BT obtained 12 citations between September 2003 and November 2015. More recent citations had to do with improper food storage and the presence of a live rodent in the kitchen where primate biscuits and feed were kept (March 2013); nine bottles of medication without expiration dates (November 2014); and a lack of records for a juvenile marmoset the park received via donation (November 2015).

Other incidents include night cages being too small for primates over 55 pounds (September 2003); a lack of shelters for kangaroos (December 2007); allowing three six-month-old lemurs to jump on members of the public (October 2008); and lack of proof that two underweight Watusi cattle were receiving treatment for worms (June 2010).

The park’s employees, however, are far from apathetic about caring for the animals, as evidenced in the treatment of the leucistic alligator with melanoma and Peanut, the other sickly orangutan. Jeff Shimonski, Jungle Island’s former horticulturist, says he’s never seen any mistreatment of the park’s animals. “Bern [Levine] brought a very good vet with him,” he tells the BT. “I didn’t see any issues.”

But some people who left reviews on Trip Advisor did. In 2017 alone, there were ten reviews from people who complained that the enclosures and cages were too small for the big felines and the primates.

“They have two of the tigers in a small place with no grass, only dirt,” one reviewer wrote. “Although nothing compared to the cement cage in which they have two other tigers next to one lion.... All of them without any kind of entertainment or activity. Also, they have two beautiful orangutans in a cage with a weird shape, without much space.”

Another reviewer claimed he or she “didn’t expect to come back crying” after seeing two leopards and a Canadian lynx in “aquarium-like boxes.”

Levine insists the animals are kept in facilities that satisfy USDA criteria. “I think everybody has a right to their own opinion,” he adds, regarding the size of enclosures. He says he understands the arguments that tigers, orangutans, and parrots are better off in the wild than in animal parks. At the same time, he adds, enabling people to actually see, hear, and smell such wild animals leads to greater awareness and empathy. If places like SeaWorld had been open a century earlier, he suggests, whaling may have been curtailed or banned sooner.

“My belief is that by being close to animals -- to actually see them and smell them and so forth -- people learn a tremendous amount about an animal,” he says. “They don’t get that by watching TV, and that’s not a criticism about TV.”


Around Jungle Island, Jake the orangutan was known as a gentle giant, according to several people who have been involved with the park for years. He was born in 2000 at the park’s former home in Pinecrest when it was still called Parrot Jungle. Like other primates nurtured by the park, Jake was displayed in a nursery near the front entrance when he was a newborn. “He was born under our care,” says Levine. “He was a perfect baby. A big baby.”

Jeff Shimonski, the former director of horticulture, recalls that for an alpha male, Jake was rather docile. Shimonski never felt threatened when he entered the orangutan enclosure to interact with Hannah, one of the female orangutans. “I never handled Jake,” Shimonski says. “But he definitely tolerated me. These are very intelligent animals. They age and think like we do.”

Linda Jacobs is the human who interacted with Jake the most, having served as the orangutans’ caretaker for roughly 20 years. The Boston native puts in more than 40 volunteer hours a week, looking after Jungle Island’s great apes. Neither a scientist nor a medical professional, she is nonetheless known as “Orangutan Mom” and is credited by Jason Chatfield, the park’s resident veterinarian, as an invaluable asset who helped save Peanut’s life. It was Jacobs who first noticed changes in Jake’s appetite and behavior.

Jake was one of the first orangutans Jacobs got to care for when she came to Jungle Island as a volunteer. His 300 pounds gave him a frightening profile, she tells the BT, but he was mostly very shy and very easygoing.

“Even though he was this big impressive guy, he always maintained a very kind nature,” she says. “He was just a very sweet, sweet guy. I’d tell people he was the kind of guy you’d hope your daughter would marry.”

Orangutans are among the four classes of great apes that also include gorillas, chimps, and bonobos. But unlike its three cousins, orangutans are the only great apes originating in Asia. The word “orangutan” translates to “person of the forest” in Malaysian and Indonesian languages. We humans and orangutans share 97 percent of the same DNA, and they, too, are born with the ability to reason and think.

In the wild, orangutans can live up to 40 years. In captivity, their lifespan can last more than half a century. However, these great apes, known for their reddish-brown coats, are critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “red list” of mammals. The conservation union estimates that the orangutan global population hit the 100,000 mark in 2016, down dramatically from 288,500 in 1973. By 2025 the population could decrease to less than 50,000, the IUCN predicts.

Between 1999 and 2013, the devastation of rainforests in Sumatra has caused the orangutan population there to drop from 2000 to just 200, according to a Guardian article. Nearly 148,300 acres of the orangutans’ natural habitat has been wiped out to make palm oil, a key ingredient for hair products made by Proctor and Gamble, Imperial Leather, and Estee Lauder, to name a few.

Orangutans are highly intelligent beings but depend heavily on one another to learn social behaviors. The 2016 book, Wattana: an Orangutan in Paris, profiles the life of a great ape raised in captivity. Author Chris Herzfeld writes that her subject’s mother rejected her at birth because of her own lack of interaction with other orangutan moms.

Female orangutans don’t innately know how to care for their infants and learn by watching other mothers take care of their offspring, Herzfeld writes. Wattana’s mother, who lived a mostly isolated life in a zoo enclosure, didn’t want to touch her daughter and didn’t know how to hold her after giving birth.

As a result, Wattana was raised by human caretakers and quickly picked up on some of their routines. For instance, she was fascinated by people tying their shoelaces. She eventually learned to tie knots by herself and would put up intricate bows made of all kinds of materials in her enclosure.

Among the most famous orangutans was an ape named Ken Allen, one of the most popular animals exhibited at the San Diego Zoo. Born in 1971, Ken became renowned for his ability to escape his enclosures. Whether it was unscrewing bolts with his fingers or climbing steep walls, the Bornean orangutan became adept at finding escape hatches and earned the nickname “the hairy Houdini.” He died in 2000 from cancer.

Jake was a wonderfully bright primate, Jacobs says. For instance, male orangutans going through puberty tend to intimidate females to show them how strong they are. “Yet Jake was always very patient with the females,” she explains. “He never lost his temper, even when one of girls would take food out of his mouth. Nothing ever got him worked up.”

Jake shared an enclosure with females Hannah and twins Pumpkin and Peanut. “He had a different role with each one of them,” Jacobs says. “Hannah would wrestle with him, even though he was twice her size. Pumpkin was the one who loved to flirt with him. He loved that. And he was sort of Peanut’s protector. Whenever Hannah or Pumpkin got a little rough with her, Peanut would go sit by Jake because she knew he wouldn’t let anything happen to her.”

Last fall Jacobs began noticing that Jake’s demeanor had changed. “There were little, subtle signs a mom picks up on with a child,” she says. “He wasn’t acting quite right. His appetite was down, and he was a little more lethargic.”

As weeks went by, Jake would get sick and then get better. “It wasn’t a steady decline,” Jacobs says. “It was up and down. We’d think he was getting better, then it seemed he was going downhill. That was the frustrating part.”

Chris Gould, Jungle Island’s managing director, says veterinarian Chatfield diagnosed symptoms of respiratory distress. “He had pneumonia with mucus, and he was having difficulty breathing,” Gould says. “Jason brought it to my attention two months before Jake died. I was briefed seven days a week on his care and his current symptoms.”

To help him diagnose the cause of Jake’s health issues, Chatfield sought advice from other vets who have treated great apes, including Levine and David Murphy, the vet for the Center for Great Apes, a sanctuary in Wauchula, Florida, that rescues orangutans and chimpanzees, Gould says.

“Jake took antibiotics by injections,” says Gould. “He was treated with a nebulizer to help him with his oxygen. It’s like treating a human. There is not much else you can do other than go to the knife. And, really surgery was something that was not an option.”

Levine points out that orangutans are highly vulnerable to human disease, and he thinks Jake may have caught the flu. The symptoms may also have been exacerbated by the special air sack male orangutans like Jake develop under the jaw that enables them to make calls. “That sack can make them vulnerable to a pneumonia-like illness,” Levine says. “I stayed in touch with them 100 percent of the time when he was sick. It was bad news. I am not sure if anything could have been done.”

Chatfield and other veterinarians he consulted informed him that Jake could die from the respiratory issues he was having, Gould says. “There were some hopeful times during treatment,” he says. “We were hoping for a recovery.”


On February 11, Linda Jacobs received a frantic call from another volunteer caretaker who’d found Jake, cold and lifeless, in his enclosure. “There’s part of you that is sort of prepared for it, but it was still a terrible shock,” she says. “We let his other orangutan companions spend time with him before we took him away. They’re very intelligent and have the same set of emotions that we do. It was very important that Hannah, Pumpkin, and Peanut said their goodbyes to Jake.”

Jacobs was present when Chatfield and Jungle Island’s consulting vet, Susan Club, performed the necropsy. They determined that Jake had died of cardiopulmonary distress. Basically, his heart stopped after being overworked to compensate for the lack of oxygen in his lungs.

Patti Ragan, founder of the Center for Great Apes, says she and Murphy, the center’s veterinarian, would decline to comment on Jake’s death, but she did confirm that Chatfield contacted Murphy to discuss the orangutan’s diagnosis. “Respiratory disease is unfortunately a common challenge for orangutans,” Ragan says. “They are very tough animals to take care of.”

Rich Zimmerman, founder of New York-based nonprofit Orangutan Outreach, echoes Ragan. “Great apes in captivity are prone to having heart and lung problems,” he says. “It’s become such a major concern, a group of vets started the Great Ape Heart Project to investigate and understand why great apes develop heart disease.”

A few days after Jake died, his body was cremated and a memorial service was held at Jungle Island attended by about 40 former and current employees, including Levine. “We shared stories about Jake,” Jacobs says. “We toasted him with coconut water because he loved his coconut water.”

When Jungle Island reopens, the park is going to erect a memorial in Jake’s honor alongside a memorial for Millie, Gould says. “Part of the new Jungle Island will have even greater orangutan facilities,” he says.

Jacobs misses her gentle giant. “Imagine being with someone nearly every day for 18 years, and then he’s gone,” she says. “I feel like those of us who get to work with orangutans are among the luckiest people in the world. There’s a huge hole in our hearts.”



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