Riverbanks Zoo and Garden
Forty Wild Years
Palmer "Satch" Krantz and
Monique Blanchette Jacobs

(The University of South Carolina Press)
Riverbanks was dreamed up by another cabal of home-town boosters that dotted the American landscape after WWII. The primary force there in Columbus, South Carolina was one O. Stan Smith who had a tiger. He had bought the tiger to attract business to his downtown ExxonMobil gas station ("Put a Tiger in Your Tank"), and initiated a contest to name her.

It was decided by a plurality of one that an appropriate name would be "Happy," although most tigers in captivity don't exactly look to be all that content and certainly not happy. They must have a name to be real, thought Stan, and, besides, you do have to ultimately find a place to store them because often they may well eat the neighbor's children and dogs if they are just hanging about with nothing to do.

Stan ultimately donated Happy to a nearby park called "Small Mammal North," a woodsy venue on the outskirts of Columbus. Happy in her new home came to represent the hopes and dreams of Columbus boosters. They would hope to have their own personal zoo someday, as big as, say, those in New York, Berlin, or London.

And surely, the Columbus zoo finally came about because a huckster by the name of John Mehrtens appeared on the scene just as the state and the city of Columbus banded together with the two pertinent counties (Lexington, Richland) to build what was to become Riverbank. According to this book, the conception, gestation, and birth of Riverbanks came to be a snarled up mess, worthy of the new snake house that was ultimately to be built at the zoo.

In the process of putting it all together, Mehrtens --- obviously a Yankee; worse, a Yankee from the Bronx --- showed himself to be one of those who knew how to yank the money levers, especially with something as close to everyone's heart as a zoo ... with all those bears, zebras, monkeys, and wombats.

Mehrtens figured that if he prepared a lowball budget and then, as time went on upped it by a few million, the governmental partners would have to bail him (and the zoo) out. He was right. Authors Jacobs and Krantz, being charitable, say that "despite all his blunders, Mehrtens was a visionary." Sort of like those visionary guys at Lehmann Brothers, a few years back, touting all those funny-sounding secondary issues for our K-401s.

The zoo became a reality --- if zoos can ever be said to be a home of reality --- in 25 April 1974, but the city of Columbus, knowing a black pit when it saw one, and wanting to keep the coin of the realm in their own bailiwick (not in the hands of a snake-oil type from Flushing) very wisely bowed out.

Shortly after, when the animal food bill got a little out of hand, the remaining Commissioners-in-charge tried to dump Mehrtens. Elephants and baboons can be as expensive as all get-out, but $200,000 for hay and peanuts in 1970s dollars seemed a little excessive.

They issued notification that he was terminated, but Mehrtens went into hiding in his office, issued a press release that said that "the Commission's actions threaten the very lives of the animals and that at this moment in time there is no professional on the site with the broad basis of experience and training to care for them."

Right: Mehrtens gets canned and all the giraffes and penguins keel over and die.

This is a very pretty book, with all the usual cuddly pictures of howler monkeys, koalas, lemurs and hornbills --- at least 150 pictures in all. Fortunately, there is a touch of reality on, say, how to deal with all the animal by-products. Riverbanks created a cleverly titled program comPOOst which is now shoveled up and sold by the ton to loyal fans of the zoo who want to fertilize their azaleas and begonias and rhododendrons with toasted monkey shit and elephant leavings. The facts of modern zoo-life are amply shown in a photograph of a daily serving of the 1500 pounds of waste cast off by these surly beasts.

To show us how beloved the zoo is to the community, Riverbanks reminds us that "every year our visitors eat more than 3 tons of hot dogs, consume 191,000 gallons of soft drinks, use 941 miles of toilet paper, and fill more than 60,000 trash bags." Here I'm trying to visualize, without actually passing out, "3 tons of hot dogs" --- much less all that TP.

We also get a report on the modern-day boosterism that zoos, orchestras, and museums seem to find de rigueur nowadays. One fiesta at Riverbanks is Halloween Happy Night, known as "Boo at the Zoo." This exact wording would be a no-no back in my salad days, back there in northern California where "boo" referred specifically to "Berkeley Boo," one of the most potent mid-altering smokes available in the known world. "Boo at the Zoo" indeed! I hope they are not letting the kids in on that kind of reality just yet.

It's almost as odd as the reference, here in the book, on page 41, to one of the early paths that ambled through the zoo ... a long, narrow wooded way which was "lined on each side with recycled telephone polls." I had to google that one, because the only polls I recall from my studies in college were "catchpolls" from medieval times, being "a petty officer of justice, especially one arresting persons for debt." This might be appropriate somewhere in the history of Riverbanks, since it was built on a mountain of elephant droppings ... as well as short-term debt.

§   §   §

Finally, I'm wondering if we really need zoos? I mean really?

Years ago when I lived in southern California, I rented a little shack that backed up to the San Diego zoo. In those days it was supposed to be one of the most lavish, child-friendly, educational blah-blah zoological parks in the whole of the western world.

Fortunately most visitors did not have to labor through their days at home within spitting distance of the actual grounds. Which, on simmering days in late summer, when the sirocccos drifted in from the northeast, was a potent reminder of the mountains of crap produced by several hundred beasts kept on show there.

The stink and the general misery of such innocent creatures of the wild locked in their drab cages ... the generic agony of so many woolly prisoners caused me and several of my friends to form the San Diego 500, an Animal Liberation Front.

We spent many an evening at the local watering hole, the It'll Do Tavern, so close and yet so far from the Beastiary, conceiving the good works we could do for our innocents.

The plan, much amended by spirits and free-floating genius was to designate a night in the upcoming fall when those of us with an affection for freeing captives worldwide would sneak into the complex by the back gate with appropriate tools --- 2x4s, wire-cutters, crowbars, jigsaws, glass cutters, and other easily available devices. With these, we would liberate every animal we could get our hands on (who would not at the same moment we prayed eat us).

We figured that if there were enough of the SD500 --- even a half-dozen inebriates --- we could free a few if not dozens, permit them to escape their gloomy, stinky prisons. We would give them a one-time chance to spend a few days on parole, away from their drab task of peering at a thousand or so children a day.

What especially appealed to us was our vision of the aftermath. I would be puttering about in the backyard, watering the Maidenhair and the Resurrection Fern, and suddenly, there, looming tall, in the garden next door, would be a pair of towering, friendly animals. My neighbor, sweet Mrs McGunty of the faded robes and furry gray slippers, would find herself face-to-face with a couple of Nubian giraffes, nibbling on her eucalyptus.

On the street outside, as I got in my car to go to work in the salt mines, I'd spot a gaggle of Caribbean flamigos, at curbside, muttering, flapping their great sunset-colored wings, looking for a nesting place. In the plane trees down the road I might spot a couple of tawny Frogmouth owls, sharing a branch with three or four ring-tailed lemurs.

And, perhaps, if I was lucky, when I got to the corner of Paradise Canyon Road, I'd find myself cheek-by-jowl with a pair of bush elephants, pensively frozen in front of Golden Antiques, with its dozens of cut glass mirrors in the window reflecting back to them (and the world) a tilted shadow of these great gray beasts, looking for no more than a bale of hay (or two, or twenty). Something to munch on before the forces of law and order come running in their black-and-white cars, dozens of red and blue lights spinning, harsh loudspeakers filled with harsh deadpan voices demanding that these creatures just shut up their damned trumpeting, stay calm, please, no trouble please --- just quietly tromp back over the hill to your old cells ... back there to where you should be, not out here where you don't belong, out here waving your ears about, scaring the gentry.

--- Lolita Lark
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH