Tag Archives: Omaha’s Zoo

Monkeying Around

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.


Move Along

August 24, 2015 by

This article appears in August 2015 Her Family.

The forbidden occupies a special place in the imaginations of young children, so it’s no surprise that a vital role in parenting (and grandparenting) resides in the task of setting clear boundaries—that process of delineating what is and isn’t allowed. That stove is hot. That knife is sharp. That street isn’t to be crossed.

But curiosity is the fuel that stokes childhood development, and the desire to explore and understand the unknown is at the very heart of learning. I was reminded of this fact on a recent outing to the zoo with my 4-year-old grandson, Barrett.

Like many frequent visitors, we have a specific circuit for navigating the sprawling zoo, one that invariably begins in the Lied Jungle. It’s a place of great adventure for Barrett, but perhaps not for the reason that one might expect.

The attention span of a 4-year-old is about as fleeting as the fame of most reality TV “stars” (Snooki, anyone?), and the trickiest part of any zoo excursion is to get my grandson to focus on the featured attractions—the animals.

Tapirs? Meh. Monkeys of every stripe? Ho hum. Exotic birds in a rainbow of colors? Save it for a box of Froot Loops.

No, what really turns him on are those emergency exits, utility closets, and entrances to hidden passageways situated along the path that wends its way through the dank environs of the jungle. You know the ones, those doors whose cleverly crafted facades are designed to blend seamlessly into the craggy, vine-draped space. They have the power to send Barrett into a frenzy of unquenchable, just-gotta-know-what’s-behind-there curiosity.

“Secret door!” he squeals with every new (and frequent) encounter with these camouflaged barriers. The magnificence of a planet’s flora and fauna is at his feet, but all Barrett seems to care about is imagining what double-super-secret wonders must lie just beyond those doors— those portals to the mysterious and the unknowable.

The same rang true in both “The Spooky Place” (Barrett’s name for the moonlit swamps of the Kingdom of the Night exhibit) and the shark-infested waters of what he calls “The Fishy Place.”

I’m glad that Barrett is curious. I’m happy that he has the ability to conjure visions of some alternate reality lurking just beyond his comprehension. Such inquisitiveness is a great asset and bodes well for a growing mind. And I also take comfort in knowing that the time will soon come when the zoo’s critters will take their rightful place as the center of his attention.

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium is on every list of the nation’s best zoos, and deservedly so. But I feel that the place is ready for a minor makeover, one where every door is…well, just a door. Remove those faux finishes. Paint them a boring green or black or beige. And please don’t stop there. Install one of those audio box thingies at every door to play a recorded message.

“Move along,” the gentle voice should drone in a continuous loop. “Nothing to see here. Move along.”

Grandpas everywhere will be grateful.


Alexis Shorb

May 20, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appeared in the May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine.

You could almost call her the mother of the aquarium. She nourishes the animals. She cleans up after their messes. She keeps them safe, all the while with eyes in the back of her head.

Lead aquarium keeper Alexis Shorb of the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium’s Scott Aquarium graduated from Coastal Carolina University with a degree in marine science. She cares primarily for the sharks and stingrays, a duty close to her heart.

“I like animals that could potentially hurt me, I guess,” Shorb quips. “I remember when I was a kid and I was first allowed to watch Jaws. It actually made me want to go to the ocean. I guess I was one of those
weird children.”

Originally from Fairfax, Virginia, Shorb grew up spending summers at the shore. She began working in landlocked Omaha more than three years ago at the beginning of the aquarium’s $6.5 million renovation. She helped built the eel tank from the ground up. “Being part of the renovation and wearing that hard hat has been another lesson that I never thought I was going to be able to do.”

Her past jobs, which include Disney’s Epcot Center and SeaWorld, have led her to hand-feed leopard sharks, bonnetheads, and stingrays. And yes, she did get bit.

“When you’re feeding anything with a mouth, it’s only natural that sometimes they will get you.” She dismisses the experience as a “glorified paper cut.”

Twice a week at feeding time, Shorb and crew raise the side curtains in the shark reef. “It makes a physical cue for the animals that they are about to get fed,” she says. The sharks politely line up in conveyer belt fashion to enjoy a selection of blue runner, bonito, mackerel, salmon, or squid.

“We use long tongs to hand-feed,” Shorb explains. “We’re actually able to distinguish which shark is which by individual birthmarks,” which allows the zoo to monitor keep accurate records on food intake.

For reasons other than what one might expect, she loves tank-cleaning time. “My favorite part is just being in the water and having a zebra shark swim by me and having the kids just watch with those big eyes. I like showing people that sharks aren’t man-eaters.”

Shorb’s broad duties include being responsible for one million gallons of fresh sea water (mixed on site) and over 1,000 sea creatures. “Pipes break. Floods happen. Nothing like getting a radio call saying there’s water dripping into the gift shop,” she says.

She also plays Cupid with a pair of tasseled wobbegongs, a species of carpet shark. “I’m kind of like Match.com. I want to put him in with her and hopefully we’ll have some babies.”

Shorb finds early mornings at the aquarium magical. “Everything’s peaceful and all of the lights are just coming on. All of the animals are waking up and are just starting to get active.”

Just like a mother relishes her cup of coffee before the kids awaken, Shorb begins another day with her beloved sharks and stingrays.