July 6, 2016 by
Photography by Contributed by Douglas County HIstorical Society

You would think Omaha, safely ensconced in the Midwest, where no monkeys come from, wouldn’t have much of a monkey problem. But Omaha history is surprisingly full of problematic monkeys and apes—here are just a few:

Our first was a female baboon who appeared at the Creighton theater downtown in 1899. The ape was trained, and was part of an animal act by Professor Fred Macart. The baboon acted as a sort of animal stagehand, cleaning up after other acts.

But on this night, the baboon went wild, attacking a stage manager and then running rampant through the theater. The baboon then charged into an attached bar and stole a bottle of whiskey and two bottles of beer, drinking them and then flinging the bottles through mirrors. The whole ordeal ended when Macart calmed the animal, putting her to sleep with a towel around her head, as you would with anyone suffering from a hangover.

Then there was Diavolo, whom the World-Herald declared an “outlaw” in 1901. He had been a pet monkey to an organ grinder in Little Italy, but escaped and terrorized the neighborhood for several weeks. Diavolo bit a child, which monkeys will do once in a while, then attempted to steal money from the boy.

Diavolo made a habit of breaking into neighbors’ houses while they were sleeping and waking them by smashing their possessions against the ground. He became especially notorious for murdering the neighborhood’s canary birds. Neighbors eventually rallied to bring the monkey to justice—if need be, to execute him—and called on Officer Sam Riegelman, one of the city’s first bicycle cops, to find or kill the creature.

The newspaper never followed up on the story, so perhaps they are out there still, Riegelman on his bicycle, chasing the chattering figure of a tiny monkey through the Omaha nights.

We should also mention Monkey Island, which was a bit of design disaster, built in Elmwood Park in 1933. The plan was simple: The city would build a little island in the park, fill it with monkeys, and then put a fence around the monkeys. Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten that monkeys can climb fences, and so the opening of Monkey Island was soon followed by a mass jailbreak. Monkeys were found miles away, and some were never recovered.

Finally, we come to the greatest escape artist in the history of apedom. His name was Fu Manchu, and he was an orangutan at the Henry Doorly Zoo in the late 1960s. Fu Manchu had a bizarre talent for escaping his enclosure, often accompanied by
other orangutans.

At first, this was chalked up to human error, as a connecting door from the enclosure to the furnace room was found opened. But it continued to happen, and nobody could be found who might be responsible for leaving the door open.

One day, the head keeper caught Fu Manchu headed down toward the door, and noticed he had a piece of wire in his mouth. The ape kept the wire hidden during the day and used it to pick the door lock when unobserved. Without his trusty lock pick, however, Fu Manchu was trapped, and so faded from the news, as all apes eventually do.

More recently, the Henry Doorly Zoo’s silverback gorilla—Kijito—made international headlines with his glass-pounding displays of dominance. In 2015, Kijito broke his enclosure’s safety glass. His antics went viral online after terrifying a visiting family.

Monkeys

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