February 22nd 2013 | Director

Frank M. Thompson

Frank Thompson had a varied and unique insight into the zoo profession. In 1957 he started working at the famous Catskill Game Farm under its owner, Roland Lindermann.
© Caravette Productions Ltd.

00:00:00 - 00:00:06

I’m Frank Thompson. I was born in Bennington, Vermont.

00:00:14 - 00:00:15

What’s the month? What’s your birthday?

00:00:15 - 00:00:23

Oh (chuckles), my birthday is July 15th, 1928.

00:00:24 - 00:00:33

When you were growing up, as a youngster, what kind of connections with animals did you have growing up?

00:00:33 - 00:00:37

I heard you used to sell salamanders?

00:00:38 - 00:02:29

Well, that was after the death of my mother. She died when I was 10 years old, and we had moved previous to her death, and I sold salamanders, at about the same age, 11 or so, I found at a lake that we had in my first 10 years. We had had a summer home on this lake. The lake and the area around the lake was privately owned. It was owned by a group of men in my hometown, and my father was one of them. The salamander thing came about. There was a concrete spillway between two lakes. The way that the spillway was constructed, it formed an excellent trap for Anoles lizards.

00:02:33 - 00:05:07

Anoles is a primarily aquatic lizard, and I found in the years following my mother’s death, one or two years later, I found an interest in Anoles lizards among a man who originally, I believe, had belonged to the National Society in Washington. He was operating a supply firm for people who studied Anoles lizards and multiple things in this, in this form of life. And he wanted Anoles, and I was in a position to supply Anoles lizards. I would ride my bicycle 10 miles south of Bennington to the lake that we were still family members of this club that owned the lake. And I would collect what the week had managed to, managed to provide. And I shipped 1 to 2,000 Anoles to this man in Kansas. Managed to ship it. He probably gave me the hints of how they should be packed for shipment, and apparently it was very easy for me to do, and I shipped them.

00:05:09 - 00:05:11

So you were a young businessman.

00:05:11 - 00:05:24

Yes. (chuckles) Now from that, ultimately, after a period of time, you got involved with the circus, but how did you get involved with the circus?

00:05:26 - 00:06:47

Well, I was… The first circus I went to was in my hometown. And the one thing I remember, outstanding memory, was seeing a man slide down a wire on his head, a 100 foot wire from its peak on the top of a pole and slide down the wire on his head with a helmet on. The helmet had a groove in it, and he slid down the wire, head balance. And he turned over at the bottom, and he styled. And I went home from seeing the circus. My father took me to the circus. I went home and told my mother.

00:06:50 - 00:07:07

Oh, I was probably three or four years old. Told my mother that this man slid down the wire on his head, and he wore a helmet, like a football helmet with a groove in it.

00:07:09 - 00:07:23

And I remembered that forever. (laughs) But then ultimately you got involved with the circus?

00:07:29 - 00:09:33

In my early teens, I became a drummer. Played drums in my high school band, and gradually was invited to join small groups because there were a number of smaller groups playing for dancing around my hometown. Eventually I got a job with a circus. I know now that the circus was sort of bouncing around this home territory. And I remember the show very well. And I was 16, 17, 18, somewhere in there, when I played with that band. At the end of my period with them, with that show, I went to Florida, myself and two brothers, one of whom was married, freshly married. We were living in a trailer, and we came to Sarasota.

00:09:35 - 00:11:16

I expected to make a living by playing drums with a band. I was wrong. You cannot make a living playing drums in Sarasota, Florida, because that’s where everybody goes in the winter in show business. And I played one job at Lido Beach. I played with a band that was led by a man who happened to, in the summer, be traveling with the Ringling Brothers Circus. He didn’t give me a job, but I played that night, played well. About two weeks, three weeks after that, we were subscribe to a show business magazine, and there was an ad in the show business magazine that we got, wanted, circus drummer. I had played with the previous circus, a smaller circus, and I played for some period of weeks with that circus band.

00:11:18 - 00:12:41

I applied by telegram from this ad in “Billboard” Magazine. I got an immediate answer hiring me as the drummer for Biller Brothers Circus. Biller Brothers was a good show. It only lasted down the road for three or four years. I was with it the first year. We played with a 12-piece band, and the leader, a guy named Jack Bell, had been the circus band leader for years, jumping from show to show. Jack Bell was a good leader. I played for the entire season.

00:12:43 - 00:12:46

And then you went to other shows?

00:12:46 - 00:14:14

No. At the beginning of the show, the show season, a man dressed in a white dinner jacket, very formally dressed, sat on the bandstand, and I learned gradually that he was the equestrian director. In other words, he managed the entire show as it was presented. His name was Felix Morales. Felix had been in show business with American circuses for all his life. He was traveling with a circus when he was a baby. He grew up in a circus. He did an act that was in very big, big demand.

00:14:17 - 00:16:36

He slid down a 100 foot wire from a pole, turned to somersault at the end, and landed on a sponge-covered pad. This had dawned on me after being on this show for several weeks, it dawned down me that this guy, my God, I saw him when I was three or four years old, and he gained my respect immediately. His family, his wife and son and daughter, joined the show. We opened in, we opened in April, first week of April, and sometime in July, his family joined the show. His son, he’s about a 14 year old, and his daughter was somewhat older, and she was quite pretty. I met the daughter, and we became very friendly and started dating in June. I think we were married August 30th. This was obviously a big change in my life, and we’re still married.

00:16:39 - 00:16:41

How many years?

00:16:44 - 00:16:48

Boy. (laughs) How many years, dear?

00:16:49 - 00:17:02

We’re approaching our 63rd. We’re approaching our 63rd. Yes, this August.

00:17:03 - 00:17:17

Now when you were on the show, you were a drummer, but did you start to have interactions with the animals on the show and kinda get that you liked them, or how did that occur?

00:17:23 - 00:19:24

I was interested in the animals on the show as I had been the previous year on the first circus band, which I played drums. I was interested in that show, in the trained horses. That show, before we were married, had a horse act that they brought eight horses into the tent, took to eight different points around the track and turned them loose. And then, the trainer, the man with the act, picked up the microphone and called commands. The eight horses gradually ran to the center ring and got in their show position with the number of each horse following the number ahead of it, one through eight. Only on command, voice command, and this was pretty impressive to me. And that act was only on that show. But on Biller Brothers, we had another horse act doing different tricks.

00:19:27 - 00:21:23

On the show, the Biller Brothers Circus had five elephants. Three were younger animals. Two were adults. My wife-to-be rode one of the big elephants doing an entrance of the performers and showing the public there the elephants that they were going to see later in the performance. I was interested. In fact, when I went to Biller Brothers, my very first week, I got in winter quarters in Mobile, Alabama and slept in a box stall in the barn with three elephants, babies, chained in this box stall. I slept in there with two candy butchers, men who sold soft drinks and peanuts, and things like that, to the attendees. I slept there, and I found that, well, one of the elephants could reach me and feel all over me with their trunk, and then settle down.

00:21:25 - 00:21:50

And I was sleeping there with two candy butchers, and I preferred the elephant feeling me with your trunk than smell of the candy butchers’ feet, which would have been in my face (chuckles) if I chose different sleeping quarters.

00:21:52 - 00:21:58

So is that when you started to have an interest in elephants?

00:21:58 - 00:22:30

Yes, these were untrained babies or just partially trained. They would follow the leader and follow the two bigger elephants. They didn’t yet know enough about circus life to perform, but they gave the impression of performing.

00:22:31 - 00:22:34

And did that start your interest in training?

00:22:35 - 00:23:40

No, not really, but I certainly was interested in elephants. Now we see it. We went ahead and finished the season. We went back to Vermont, back to Bennington, my hometown. I was convinced by my father that I should join him in his furniture manufacturing business. Some of this furniture in our home was made by him. Anyway, that was the wrong business for me. I stayed with it.

00:23:43 - 00:24:34

I visited a place called the Catskill Game Farm. It was an interesting place. We had a son by then. We went back and I bought a bear cub from the Catskill Game Farm. Took it home and trained the cub to let me handle it, put it on a leash. And, oh, it’s this long. He weighed roughly 20, 25 pounds. And I trained that cub, and it responded well.

00:24:38 - 00:25:56

I traded the bear, the trained bear cub. I traded it for a group of deer. And I got the deer. I think I wound up with five deer, something like that. And these, I (chuckles), I started a small collection of zoo animals. And I opened a zoo, a little small zoo. Ran that for paid admission, and got a pretty good feel for that sort of life. And trained a lot of animals, nothing big, llamas, donkeys.

00:26:00 - 00:27:39

Finally I got rid of that. We spent some time in Sarasota, Florida. This was the home of Connie’s parents. Eventually I went back up to the Catskill Game Farm and asked for a job, and was given a job on the feed wagon. The feed wagon was a pretty good size steel trailer pulled by a tractor. And this feed wagon fed the animals in that farm all season, all summer, and winter too. The farm wasn’t open to the public during the winter, but we had to feed the animals. I learned a lot about zoos, that particular zoo and the animals that were in the zoos.

00:27:40 - 00:27:43

Tell me about your boss at the zoo. Who hired you?

00:27:45 - 00:29:08

I was hired by the owner of the Catskill Game Farm, Roland Lindemann. Roland had started, I think he was in the financial business in New York City. His father and mother came over from Germany, retired. He was a pensioner from being a zoo director in Europe. And he bought property in the Catskill Mountains in New York State, and his son came to visit him certainly every week. And his son bought a lot of animals for his father to take care of. He finally opened the Catskill Game Farm, like I had opened my little farm in Vermont. And the Catskill Game Farm, there was no comparison.

00:29:14 - 00:31:08

The year after I went to work for him, he went to Australia and bought a huge shipment of animals from Australia. It came in to New York in two large groups. One ship couldn’t carry ’em all. There was a tremendous number of birds, roughly 100 cockatoos, parrots and cockatoos. A lot of kangaroos. A lot of kangaroos. The first fall that they were there, well, I had progressed from feeding animals all day to other duties among the 35 or 40 keepers. Among the animals that he brought in from Australia was a large group of wallabies, kangaroos, red kangaroos. A giant kangaroo stands six-feet high in a sitting position.

00:31:11 - 00:33:00

And the number that I remember, the first winter, we had to consolidate animals together to keep ’em warm in the Catskill Mountains. We had a barn roughly a 100-feet long and 50-feet wide. That barn held male, only male, red kangaroos. A red kangaroo stands six-feet tall in a sitting position. And the following spring, we were told to move the male kangaroos, and there were only males kept in that barn. I remember that one keeper and I, Frank Dovish and Frank Thompson, caught with our hands and carried them into the transport vehicle, turned them loose again, and drove them to a summer enclosure where they would be that second summer. We moved 100 kangaroos in one day, the two of us, just the two of us. We got to know a lot about kangaroos that day.

00:33:02 - 00:33:09

Now they say that Roland Lindemann, your boss who hired you, was quite an unusual gentleman.

00:33:10 - 00:33:13

Do you have any good Roland Lindemann stories?

00:33:14 - 00:35:06

Ah, boy. He was a fabulous man. Elderly. Very, very knowledgeable about wild animals. He had a lot of property. The Catskill Game Farm was hundreds of acres. He originated a horse section, a barn, six or eight chain link fenced corrals, and roughly eight indoor stalls. The Przewalski’s horses were one of the remaining wild horse animals in the world, and Roland had purchased in Europe two or three horses and had a birth or two among them.

00:35:08 - 00:36:45

Then he bought more and started a whole collection of wild horses. It probably was the largest collection of Przewalski’s horses in the world among the horses. Boy, boy, they were tough customers. (chuckles) You never walked into a pen with those animals alone. They would come after you. The remainder of that collection is scattered around the zoos of the world. By that time, the second year I was in Catskill, I moved into a farm, farmhouse. Had originally been the home of a family that lived on that property.

00:36:51 - 00:38:34

The farm itself was approximately 1,000 acres in the Catskill Mountains. 200 of those acres were open to the public, but the other animals, like the Przewalski horses, were kept in their own quarters. A large quantity of deer and antelope were in the park and some legitimate zoo animals. Always at least one elephant, sometimes two or three. Some hippos, at least a pair. A lot of kangaroos. The 100 males were paired off. We sold a lot of the kangaroos, and a lot of the other animals, wallabies, wallaroos, all the way from little foot-high wallabies all the way up to six-foot kangaroos.

00:38:37 - 00:38:41

Roland, was he hands on? Was he there a lot?

00:38:41 - 00:39:17

He was there a lot. He knew his animals well, very well. We had a problem with kangaroos having mouth problems, and, gradually, he got them changed in diet and got them eating a much better diet, and solved the mouth infections.

00:39:17 - 00:39:21

Now you went higher in the organization, didn’t you?

00:39:21 - 00:39:22

How did that come about?

00:39:23 - 00:40:19

Well, from running the feed wagon, I eventually, became his assistant. And the second year I was there, an imported person came in, Heinz Heck. Heinz was the son of the previous director of the Berlin Zoo. He came in from working in the, the, I’m sorry.

00:40:25 - 00:40:27

You were assistant director?

00:40:28 - 00:41:48

Yeah, I was assistant director. Eventually, Heinz Heck came in from Munich, where he had been also assistant director. Heinz’s younger brother was immediately appointed assistant director, as I recall, in Munich when Heinz left to come to Catskill. He had been hired two years before he actually came over. He came over about Christmastime, he, his wife, and their newborn baby. They arrived at New York. I went down to meet them, as wonderful group of people that went and met Mr. and Mrs. Heck. And Mr. and Mrs. Lindemann went aboard, went to see them, their arrival.

00:41:53 - 00:43:05

I rode down in a truck to bring their airborne furniture and so on. I was introduced to Heinz Heck as the assistant director, and his eyebrows went up. He didn’t say anything. And later when we became friends, he explained to me, “You were introduced as assistant director. Are you the assistant director?” And I said, “I think so. I operate under that name.” And he said, “I was hired as assistant director.” And he took the opportunity to go to Roland Lindemann and ask about this, and Roland, “Oh, oh, well, well, he’s the assistant director. You’re… Think of a name.

00:43:05 - 00:44:35

Think of a name that you’d like to be.” (chuckles) And Heinz did. I’ve forgotten what his title was. But he was not happy there. They fit in very well. They really filled the title of assistant director. This was around Christmastime of that year. That spring, my duties were changed somewhat, and I was shifted over to less, I became less involved in the animals and more involved in the business of the game farm. We had a picture-taking operation, and I was put in charge of the picture taking.

00:44:37 - 00:47:12

I would report to the basement of the administrative building, and put together the groups of gift shops. And there were a group of gift shops in the entire park. I would put together the number of photographs that they needed to refill their stock. Along about July, he called me in the office one day. I sat down, and he said, “You’ll be finished here in 30 days.” “You mean I’m being fired?” He said, “I mean that.” Never said why, never gave me a reason, but, “You finish the season, and October first, you’re done.” I never found out why I was fired. My guess was that he wanted to make Heinz more at home there, and he wanted to do me a favor and let me go by having a 30-day notice. And he was very, very easygoing with me. Three weeks into the 30 days, he and Heinz both came to me, and some other, something they were asking about the photographs I was in charge of.

00:47:16 - 00:48:44

Roland said, “By the way, you don’t have to get rid of your job by September 1st. You could stay on a little longer if you’d like.” And I said, “No, we’ve already made our arrangements to move to Florida. Our children are already enrolled in school in Florida, but thank you.” He never told me why, why my 30-day notice was extended. I went to Florida. I took a short job, a short stay at a job, with tropical fish, headquarters, a firm that was breeding tropical fish for sale to all the pet shops all over the country. That never came about because I was offered a job as, I guess, general curator in.

00:48:52 - 00:48:53

At Fort Worth?

00:48:53 - 00:48:59

Yeah. (laughs) Well, let me ask a follow up on the Catskills.

00:48:59 - 00:49:05

Did Roland Lindemann ever give you any advice that you used later in later life?

00:49:07 - 00:50:08

Oh, yes. Roland took me to a couple of annual meetings of zoo directors. Zoo directors had annual meetings. The leading person in charge of each zoo attended most of these meetings. And I went to several. The first one I went to was in Chicago. I guess probably…

00:50:09 - 00:50:13

Connie, can you remember where I went the first time?

00:50:16 - 00:50:25

The first time, first zoo conference with Roland. First conference. I went instead of Roland. Instead of Roland. Oh, God.

00:50:25 - 00:50:26

Is that Chicago?

00:50:29 - 00:50:35

Anyway, it was- That sounds to me, maybe that was Chicago.

00:50:35 - 00:50:36

Yeah, the first, right?

00:50:36 - 00:51:54

He went in place of him. I was replacing Roland Lindemann, who had suddenly been called overseas or whatever. And I went to Chicago to represent the game farm. My God, (chuckling) I was terrified. But I met Marlin Perkins, who was doing weekly TV show. I was assigned, assigned a job by the woman head of the AAZPA. She took care of the national business of the- Peg Dankworth. Peg Dankworth, yeah.

00:51:58 - 00:52:31

I met her, and I was assigned a job of collecting some funds from everybody there. I survived the week, and I went to the, I think, the next, next with Roland, but I don’t remember.

00:52:31 - 00:52:40

So you were- So you were at the game farm when some rare animals, like the Somali wild ass, came through the game farm?

00:52:40 - 00:52:42

Which was very rare.

00:52:42 - 00:52:44

Do you remember how that came about?

00:52:44 - 00:52:46

Roland had connections?

00:52:46 - 00:53:00

Well, Roland, of course, visited all the zoos in Europe, and he had a lot of money, and he offered enough money to buy these things.

00:53:03 - 00:53:14

A lot of what we got in those days were what?

00:53:15 - 00:53:45

Sheer money. But they survived. Okay, let’s recap a little, and that is Mr. Lindemann has let you go, and you’re moving to Florida. You were thinking about fish, but you go to the Fort Worth Zoo about 1961. But how did you get… Here’s my question.

00:53:45 - 00:53:50

How did you know there was a job at the Fort Worth Zoo as general curator?

00:53:53 - 00:54:37

The director of the Fort Worth Zoo was at one of the Zoo directors conferences. As a matter of fact, I think I sold him a pair of tapirs that we had at the, we had brought them in from South America. Little weight, little guys. Weighed 20 pounds a piece. Little striped babies. And I sold them to Fort Worth, and he hired me in the process.

00:54:41 - 00:54:43

What was the zoo like when you came to Fort Worth?

00:54:43 - 00:54:45

I mean, what kind of zoo was it?

00:54:49 - 00:56:28

It was a one-man zoo. The previous year, they had built a reptile house. It was one of the most complete reptile houses in the country. The man in charge of the reptile house was a kid, 19 year old, roughly, kid. But his stepfather was John Mertens. Steve Mertens was his son, stepson. John Mertens was, was a fully qualified man. I guess you’d say he was a man, but he operated the reptile house by remote.

00:56:28 - 00:58:00

John Mertens operated the reptile house by a remote control. He would tell his stepson, “Do this and do that,” and everything would be all right. They had been operated under this way for a year since the reptile house had been opened. Shortly after I came there, John Mertens was hired as curator of reptiles. John was a good reptile man, very, very knowledgeable. Steve, his stepson, was very knowledgeable. Later, Steve, I don’t know whatever happened to Steve, but later Steve became boss reptile man in the Atlanta Zoo. I don’t know where he is now.

00:58:08 - 00:59:42

The Fort Worth Zoo was sort of a one-man zoo. It wasn’t, wasn’t entirely a one-man zoo, but damn near it. He called the shots on everything. Lawrence Curtis. I took the job of general curator. I was sorry that I had taken it later on. We moved there, bought a house there. A couple of years later, there was a friend of Steve Dobbs, the junior guy, a friend of his was from Guatemala.

00:59:48 - 01:01:51

Steve Dobbs was invited to attend, I guess it was a vacation in Guatemala. I went along as general curator, more or less in charge of the operation. And a third person, I don’t remember the guy’s name, but a friend of Steve’s went along. We went to Guatemala. We stayed at, can’t remember the man’s name, by an American attache in the Guatemala embassy. We were assigned a trip to Guatemala down on the Pacific Coast. Went down there by car. On the trip down, we stopped by a swamp and collected.

01:01:53 - 01:03:08

And in the course of collecting, I got bitten by a rear-fanged snake. I can’t remember the name. But I grabbed the snake off the log, and it turned around and bit me. And this was the rear-fanged snake. Wasn’t terrible. I was bit numb, this hand, I think. I was treated, treated by John Mertens, who was in on the trip. John overdid the treatment for the sake of somebody doing a news story.

01:03:12 - 01:03:38

I trip up. We pulled into, pulled into a trader’s place in Guatemala City, and I got treated further that afternoon (chuckles). God, I nearly passed out from the treatment, but the bite was nothing.

01:03:43 - 01:03:50

The treatment was worth experiencing. (chuckling) And was this a collecting tour?

01:03:50 - 01:03:53

Yeah. Yeah.

01:03:53 - 01:03:56

For Atlanta Zoo, Fort Worth Zoo?

01:03:56 - 01:03:58

Fort Worth Zoo, yeah.

01:04:00 - 01:04:03

Didn’t you bring back some hummingbirds that trip?

01:04:03 - 01:04:04


01:04:04 - 01:04:07

didn’t you bring back that trip?

01:04:07 - 01:04:27

With John. Hummingbirds and the plane. Yeah. Yeah, we had to feed the hummingbirds on the plane coming back. Yeah, it was something. And ask him about the pink porpoise. He was involved in it. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. We didn’t bring any pink porpoise.

01:04:27 - 01:04:42

No, no, no. That’s separate. I said ask you about the pink porpoise. That was a separate thing. That was a separate thing. Well, let me ask you, Frank, a question.

01:04:42 - 01:04:58

When you, basic, when you came from this privately run zoo by Roland Lindemann to a more public zoo, operated by the city of Fort Worth, did you see differences in the way it was run, both of them were run?

01:05:01 - 01:05:39

Yeah, Roland Lindemann ran a much improved version of the zoo. It was very well run in Fort Worth. Was more of a zoo that featured the general curator. Whatever, director.

01:05:41 - 01:05:43

Did you work with Toby Tobias?

01:05:43 - 01:05:44


01:05:44 - 01:05:46

And what was your relationship?

01:05:46 - 01:06:12

Oh, Toby Tobias was a vet. He was a hell of a good vet. My son, for a while before he died, he was driving, driving a vehicle. Limousine.

01:06:12 - 01:06:14


01:06:19 - 01:06:44

Picking up people in the airport. And he called one day, one night. He had picked up Toby Tobias’s daughter. I didn’t even know he had a daughter, but he talked to her, and found out Toby was retired.

01:06:48 - 01:06:50

Do you remember where he was?

01:06:52 - 01:07:11

I think it was Tucson. Tucson. Yeah. No, he was in Texas. Oh, oh, Toby was in Texas. Toby was in Texas. He was the vet at- Anyway, he sent my good word.

01:07:14 - 01:07:21

Now when you worked with Toby, was he one of the first vets to start using tranquilizer guns?

01:07:21 - 01:08:22

Yes. Wasn’t the first. The first tranquilizer gun I came across was in Catskill, the inventor of the tranquilizer gun. Somebody, I don’t remember his name. Red Palmer. And Red Palmer sold the first tranquilizer gun to Roland Lindemann, and I used it at Catskill, used it in front of a group of zoo directors. Fortunately I didn’t kill anything, but, yeah, I used it there. So then, and in Fort Worth, that was the early days of this method of tranquilizing animals. Yeah.

01:08:23 - 01:09:04

Not a big… If you worked in a zoo that used it, it was not featured. The news media made a lot out of it, but it wasn’t made a lot out of, didn’t deserve it. Didn’t deserve it, the attention it was getting. Now at the Fort Worth Zoo, they did have a pink dolphin or a Amazonian river dolphin.

01:09:04 - 01:09:06

Were you involved in that, in acquiring it?

01:09:06 - 01:09:33

Yes. That’s rare. Curtis bought the first one from Trudy Jerkins, a lady importer of South American stuff. Her partner, Mike Tsalikes.

01:09:36 - 01:09:38

God, where did I get that name?

01:09:40 - 01:10:03

T-S-A-L-I-C-K-I-E-S. Mike Tsalikes worked out of Columbia. He sold a lot of reptiles through his partner.

01:10:17 - 01:10:20

Where was Trudy Jerkins?

01:10:20 - 01:10:22

I think she’s near Tarpon Springs, wasn’t she?

01:10:22 - 01:12:14

Tarpon Springs. Mike sent up one pink porpoise, and she had it in Fort Worth. Lawrence Curtis flew to Fort Worth and saw it, bought it, and it was flown into Fort Worth. We locked the hippos in their barn and used their outdoor pool to get the pink porpoise used to captivity. I remember sleeping in the hippo pool area a few nights when we were weren’t sure she was going to make it through the night. So she got used to being a fed fish and used to being fed regularly. And we started a new addition to the aquarium building. And the pink porpoise with three windows underneath, it was built on the hillside.

01:12:14 - 01:14:28

And you went down, down at either end of the pool and viewed the porpoise in the water. Now this was, this was a month or more following the porpoise’s arrival. And she was putting this pool in the aquarium building along about the time she went in, went in the pool, we got another pink porpoise from the same source, Trudy Jerkins and/or Mike Tsalikes in South America. And it was on a phone up, and I came to Fort Worth, came from Fort Worth to Tarpon Springs, and we flew the male in the backseat of a four place Cessna, the pilot and I in the front and a hand-built pool, enough water in the back of us to float the porpoise. We stopped in someplace in Mississippi for fuel on the way back from Tarpon Springs, flew into Fort Worth, and it made the pair. And this was the first pair ever, ever kept in North America. Now you were involved in a number of exhibits at the Fort Worth Zoo.

01:14:28 - 01:14:33

Are there any that stand out that you were involved in, in helping to put together?

01:14:33 - 01:16:01

No (chuckles). I took a phone call one night, three o’clock in the morning, night watchman. “My God, you’ve gotta get down here. Something’s loose in the ape house.” And I said, “What do you mean something?” And he said, “I don’t know what, but there’s something loose. The last time I mean to check in there, went in to punch the clock, it was fine. And this time I just cracked the door and looked through the crack, and the light was on, and the refrigerator was laying on its back on the floor. And I can’t tell what, but one of the apes is loose.” And I said, “Well, which one?” And he said, “I don’t know and I’m not gonna find out.” We had a huge gorilla, a big female orang, a baby orang. Anyway, I went down and cracked the door open, and I could see Little Lawrence.

01:16:06 - 01:17:08

He was called Little Lawrence by everybody in the zoo except the zoo director, whose name was Lawrence. And Little Lawrence was loose. And I went in and closed the door behind me, obviously. Little Lawrence was, oh, two or three years old. He put us back feet around my middle and his hands and arms around my neck. There were bananas all over the place, and I held a banana, and he ate another one. And I tried to walk into his cage. No, no, he would grab the doors on his cage, which was off exhibit, each side with his hands.

01:17:10 - 01:18:24

I walked back out ’cause somebody says else, “Every time I tried to walk into that cage, he’d grab it.” And he was strong enough. He could keep me from walking in the cage. There was a female orang on exhibit. I put him down, left him to his own devices in the kitchen, and I went up up a ladder and then called her inside the cage, and I shut it. So in other words, her exhibit cage was vacant, and she was in the cage and locked. This time I took Lawrence and walked through her door into her exhibit cage, and he let me walk through. Played with him a little bit in there. He got down and was playing with her toys in the exhibit cage, and I slipped out and locked the door.

01:18:26 - 01:18:30

That was how I got Little Lawrence in the cage.

01:18:30 - 01:18:32

Now Little Lawrence was an orangutan?

01:18:32 - 01:18:46

Yes. A good sized baby. Two or three years old. I don’t know. He could stop me when I grabbed the bars.

01:18:47 - 01:19:11

Now you mentioned that at some point you felt, “Well, Fort Worth may not be the best place for my professional knowledge.” What made you decide to start looking elsewhere than Fort Worth, and what was the next step after that?

01:19:12 - 01:19:45

The next step was a meeting in Fort Worth of a number of zoos, a number of zoo people. There was a priest and a couple of other people there from. I didn’t hear who you said there.

01:19:45 - 01:19:47


01:19:47 - 01:19:56

A priest. A priest. Fort Worth with a priest. There’s some zoo people. I was asking Frank about leaving- Fort Worth.

01:19:56 - 01:19:57

They were from Evansville, right?

01:19:57 - 01:21:13

Right, yeah. Okay. You spoke really long. And I knew that Evansville had lost their zoo director or fired or whatever. Yeah, I’ll admit, I sort of got friendly with the priest and the others from Evansville. A week after, I got, a week after I wound up at the meeting, I got a phone call from the mayor of Evansville and wanted me to come up. And I went up there and got the job. I made it clear to the priest and the mayor, “I’m not gonna fool around. I’m going to be the director of the zoo.

01:21:14 - 01:21:18

I’m gonna be the only director of the zoo.

01:21:21 - 01:21:35

You, Mr. Mayor, are not gonna be involved in directing that zoo.” I just want to say that I think that the priest was at that time leading the society in Evansville, right?

01:21:35 - 01:22:04

Yes. were with him. Yes. Yup. Speak up, Frank. And I went out to the zoo with the mayor. And we looked around, and I pointed out stuff that I would change. This needs to go. This needs to go. This needs to be changed.

01:22:05 - 01:22:08

And we went back to his office and he hired me.

01:22:10 - 01:22:20

And what skills did you learn or take away from Fort Worth that you think were helpful when you became the zoo director?

01:22:26 - 01:22:44

To be honest, very few. I learned a lot I shouldn’t do. I learned a lot.

01:22:52 - 01:22:56

Did you live on the zoo property or did you have to find a home?

01:22:56 - 01:23:14

I had to find a home. I lived for the whole summer months in a tiny apartment downtown with a Murphy bed folding out of the wall.

01:23:17 - 01:23:31

When you came to Mesker Park Zoo, and you told the mayor of some things you were thinking of, did you kind of have a plan that you were, as you walked around the zoo, that you were thinking you’d like to, a master plan that you’d like to try and work with the zoo on?

01:23:33 - 01:25:13

Not a master plan. First I needed to get rid of some people that shouldn’t be there. Give me just a minute. No problem. I went to a meeting, a luncheon meeting, with the Parks Commission. I walked into the meeting, and I put down a stack of tape recordings. I explained what the tape recordings were. They were various tape recordings of my, quote, unquote, “assistant.” And I said, “I’ve got the card, the other half of this story in the car.

01:25:13 - 01:25:47

I’ll go get it if you wish.” And they said, “No, don’t get it.” And then somebody said, “What time do you think he ought to leave the zoo?” And I said, “In 30 minutes.” He called the zoo and fired the guy on the phone. Frank. Speak louder, dear. Speak louder.

01:25:47 - 01:26:02

When you talked about you said, “I learned at Fort Worth what not to do,” what were some of those things, those lessons that you learned not to do that you didn’t want to do in Evansville?

01:26:04 - 01:26:08

I’d rather talk about Evansville. Okay.

01:26:10 - 01:26:26

When you were making the changes, and you said you had to start with some people, and you were able to move some of those people out, what were some of the exhibit changes that you thought the zoo, you were gonna try and do?

01:26:38 - 01:28:15

One day, the elephant at a fairly large outdoor area with a moat that she supposedly couldn’t get into, and she went into it regularly every day. My assistant in name was working that day, and he said, “Oh, damn her. She’s down there again.” And I said, “Well, let’s go get her out.” He kind of backed off. We got down in the moat with the elephant. Now one side of the outside of the moat was vertical. The inside was maybe three-feet wide. And then it slanted up at a 45-degree angle to where the elephant should have been. We called her. She wouldn’t come.

01:28:19 - 01:29:59

I went down behind her. John, I’ll use it, use the name John, was behind me. I got pretty close to the elephant, and he gave me a shove between the shoulders with his hand. I went forward, but the elephant didn’t step on me. She moved forward a little bit, but I got up and had a word or two. He got back up outside and then walked up to the elephant again, and walked behind her. She moved ahead and got up, out out, out of the moat. And that was one of the things that we had a short and very heated discussion when we got back in the office, and I taped it.

01:30:00 - 01:30:11

I didn’t make it obvious that I was taping it. That was taped, and that’s one of the tapes that I brought, brought to the board meeting.

01:30:16 - 01:30:29

So as you were building or doing things at the Evansville Zoo, what were some of your proudest accomplishments that you were able to get through?

01:30:31 - 01:31:41

Getting rid of him. (chuckling) When I went back to the zoo that afternoon, he wasn’t there, and nobody could find him. Nobody could find him. And I went up to the office and he wasn’t there. And the little old lady that was a patron, her husband had been in the zoo staff, had died, and the mayor gave her a job keeping things clean and neat. And she told me (chuckling), she said, “I don’t know what happened, but he got a phone call and he slammed the phone down and went down and got in his car and drove away. That’s the last I saw of him.” (chuckling) And she reminded me of that at numerous times afterward.

01:31:43 - 01:31:46

What animal exhibits were you able to kind of put together?

01:31:55 - 01:33:45

We had a flock of dogs. I’m not at all sure they were purebred dingoes, but they were labeled as such. We got that exhibit straightened out, got oddball animals out of there and just got the exhibit straightened out. And once and for all, we stopped selling dingo puppies on Zoo Day in the spring, every year. There was one holiday, there was Zoo Day, and they sold dingo puppies. My God, half of the wild dogs in the town were related to those dingoes. We had an old building that had good cages, the old type cages with vertical bars and so on. There was an empty elephant cage there, a sign that was kept in respect for the former zoo director who had been killed there by the elephant.

01:33:48 - 01:35:21

We took that sign down and changed the elephant cage. We straightened up a lot of cages and what they exhibited, and the labels on the cages were just terrible. Fortunately, not too many people had been injured by animals, but where they were, they had a label on it saying, “This one killed a visitor.” This is not something you advertise through your labeling system. Oh, god. But anyway, we straightened out umpteen things like this. I reported every week to the Park Board and told them what I was doing and didn’t hold anything back. And they accepted it. It was six months before my wife came to Evansville from Fort Worth.

01:35:23 - 01:36:52

I took a few days off, flew down to Fort Worth, we sold the house, loaded up and got back. While we were gone, a banker, today still I don’t know his name, but he said, “My bank has that house on our list of properties. How would you like to live there?” And I said, “Well, I need a house for that. I don’t think I can afford that.” He said, “Go look at the house.” I looked at the house. It was nearly new. Had been built a year, two years outside before, and it was vacant. And I bought the house for just putting a monthly payment on the house and moving the family in. That was it. I figured that was a step in the right direction, but at that it was six months.

01:36:59 - 01:37:01

A lot had changed.

01:37:01 - 01:37:07

Now you were working with, now as a zoo director, you were interacting with other zoo directors?

01:37:07 - 01:37:07

Oh, yes.

01:37:07 - 01:37:20

And did any of those other zoo directors influence you, give you advice, or interact with you in a meaningful way?

01:37:23 - 01:38:44

Gary Clark hired me as, I don’t know what you would call me. He hired me. I went out on a weekend, out to Topeka, and looked at the Topeka Zoo and looked at his problems, and told him what I would do. He did some of it. Some of it he didn’t. But he was a good friend. I didn’t have any contact to speak of with my former zoo director, Lawrence Curtis. I got help from a lot of people, a lot of zoo directors, and I took advice.

01:38:45 - 01:38:51

Do you remember any of the advice that, some good advice that maybe one or two of them may have given you?

01:38:55 - 01:39:08

No, and I wouldn’t name any of them because I might leave somebody out, but I got good advice from damn near everybody I asked of.

01:39:10 - 01:39:14

And did you have a relationship with Marlin Perkins?

01:39:16 - 01:39:25

I wasn’t quite at the stage where you reached up that far. (chuckles) Okay. Okay.

01:39:25 - 01:39:30

Were you involved in the AAZPA as director now that you were a director?

01:39:31 - 01:40:43

Yes, I was. I guess I was like the director, one of. One of a number of directors. Not right off the bat, but in the first couple of years, I moved up steadily. Now at some point you’re working at the Evansville Zoo, but you decide, or you leave the zoo. It wasn’t that fast. I was on the let’s-talk-to-him list as director of the San Antonio Zoo. I wanted San Antonio.

01:40:46 - 01:41:57

It had a hell of a good collection. There was a situation where they kept a lot of stock. They were breeding for private people. These people were all on the board or something similar to being on the board of the zoo. I liked what I saw. I didn’t get the job. I was called and told I had the job, and a day later I was called and told the job had been given to someone else. My wife didn’t speak against it, she was in favor of it, but I felt that she wouldn’t be happy in San Antonio.

01:42:00 - 01:44:56

I wasn’t disappointed when the job went to somebody else. But if you are close to getting a job, your present job becomes, maybe you look at everything’s bad about it, and I fell victim to myself. On the other hand, I knew that I, I knew that I knew a lot more about animals and their buying and selling than I thought I had to know as a zoo director. I could see where I would, where I would do well as an animal dealer, and I left Evansville. I left Evansville five or six months later, and we moved down here to Florida. I worked temporarily as another tropical fish (instinct), but I tried buying and selling animals. There’s pictures around here of a young tiger that I bought and resold to the prosecutor people.

01:44:59 - 01:45:06

Do you know anybody in H.H.?

01:45:10 - 01:45:14

He died, and his wife is still running the zoo, the service.

01:45:18 - 01:45:29

So you decided that your knowledge of buying and selling animals might be, instead of running the zoo, might be a good business?

01:45:33 - 01:45:33

Beg your pardon?

01:45:33 - 01:45:40

You decided after you left Evansville that buying and selling animals, which you knew about, might be a good business for you?

01:45:40 - 01:45:44

Yes, yes. Obviously.

01:45:44 - 01:45:55

And what were some of the, in this new business, what were some of the problems that you had to deal with or limitations in buying and selling?

01:45:55 - 01:46:04

Or were there any, or was it your knowledge and knowing all the zoo people that you could do things?

01:46:04 - 01:47:36

Not knowing zoo people. I had become acquainted with a number of suppliers, and I’d become acquainted with the mechanism by which you find the suppliers. There was a good sale for wallabies, not full-sized kangaroos. Wallabies. Little guys. And you couldn’t export ’em from Australia anymore. But I looked at the past history of wallabies in Australia and the sequent, and they had been exported to New Zealand, and they had bred like hell in New Zealand, and lo and behold, they could be exported from New Zealand. New Zealand was absolutely cheerful about signing export permits. So we were talking about, I think, constraints or problems that you had in the animal dealing business that you tried to solve.

01:47:36 - 01:49:24

Well, this was an example of something I did a lot of. These animals were looked at with a great deal of not lovability by the people and New Zealand. That paper tells another story that might be, might be useful. We’ll get back to that. Did you specialize in any kind of animals that you were interested in when you were- Well. Wallabies, for one. All right, wallabies were a specialty because I had had so much experience with kangaroos, and kangaroos are just big wallabies, at Catskill. Because I had been familiar with them, I specialized in that family very successfully.

01:49:29 - 01:49:38

You were gonna tell me the wallaby story. I’ve forgotten what I was gonna show you. But we’ll get back. We’ll get back.

01:49:38 - 01:49:46

When you were dealing with, did you have dealings with other animal dealers at the time?

01:49:46 - 01:51:23

Some names that I remember are the Fred Zeehandelaar, Charles Chase, International Animal Exchange. I mean- International Animal Exchange was a serious competitor. Did far more more business than I did. Bill Chase was a competitor, certainly, but a fairly good, honest competitor. The people in Michigan, animal dealers, were operating with one member, one brother in New Zealand, or not in New Zealand. Africa. and a couple of dealers here. Here.

01:51:28 - 01:53:25

After I left the zoo in Evansville and came down here, I didn’t sell anything for six or eight months, six months, I would say. I made a trip to California and had an appointment with a guy who was involved in building the next Lion Country Safari out there. I sat down in his office, and he wanted to know what we had to sell. At that point, I had agreed to represent Frans van den Brink from Holland. And Frans had just brought in a big shipment from South America to his facility in Holland. I told this man what we had, and he said, “Well, tell me how much would you charge us if we agreed to take, say, 10 elephants?” I don’t know. I’m just grabbing a number out of the air. I don’t remember how many elephants it was.

01:53:28 - 01:54:40

I quoted a price and he said, “Let’s see. Let’s see now. What else do we want?” And he went down the list. I walked out of his office with a signed order for an incredible amount of money. It was 15 something. And I don’t remember precisely how much, but it was, I don’t think it was millions, but it was like a million and a half. It was 15 somethings. And I confirmed it. But that was the first order I got.

01:54:41 - 01:55:03

So you were dealing with elephants that were coming from van den Brink. Yes. Yes, to Canada, to the West Coast. That’s a totally different, different matter.

01:55:04 - 01:55:08

Were there a lot of logistics involved in bringing that kind of shipment?

01:55:08 - 01:55:11

Sure, sure.

01:55:11 - 01:55:13

What were some of the things you had to think about?

01:55:15 - 01:55:20

How are we going to get ’em there? (laughing) How did you get ’em there?

01:55:20 - 01:55:55

All right, they came in, the shipment came in to New York from Holland. I don’t know why, but I was in Jackson, Mississippi. God only knows why at that point. But I got a phone call in Jackson saying the boat is landing in Providence, Rhode Island or.

01:55:59 - 01:56:03

New York?

01:56:05 - 01:57:15

I drove all night. My wife and I got back in Bradenton. I got a flight to New York, slept on the plane going up, the boat was in, and I got there. Got the elephants partially unloaded. I was waiting for Harry Overbaugh. Harry is a special character, special unto everybody else, but I was waiting for him. Harry arrived about noon or one o’clock the day the boat pulled in. We unloaded six trucks with elephants.

01:57:21 - 01:58:28

I have forgotten. Truthfully, I do not remember how many elephants there were, something like 10 or 12, but a lot of other things. Harry unloaded them all and left all six trucks across the country. And I knew they were safe. Absolutely sure. And they got there. My God. You cannot imagine unloading 10, 12 elephants, what is involved? (chuckling) And they come up, and I shook hands with the man out there, and we got paid.

01:58:31 - 01:58:53

That was the first shipment I sold. That dealer, that deal put me in business. I didn’t have to sell anything else for months. I did, but I didn’t have to.

01:58:54 - 01:59:00

And did you continue your relationship with van den Brink?

01:59:00 - 02:00:31

Yes, temporarily. When he came back, when he came back from the deal, the city I made my deal with him was Oklahoma City, I think. And he left Oklahoma City after I did. I got home, and I got word that Frans was coming. And he showed up. She never laid there before I invited her, but she never got up by herself. Anyway, he left Oklahoma City and flew into Bradenton. We lived downtown.

02:00:40 - 02:02:06

He was kind of talkative in wild, wild terms. I was used to him. I thought he spent the night at a motel downtown. I got a phone call the next morning, wanted to know, “Do you know a Frans van den Brink?” And I said, “Sure, he’s my partner in business.” “Come down to the police station. I want to see you. We’ve got Mr. van den Brink here.” And (laughing) holy moly, he had torn up the motel, his room. What else? I don’t know. That the police picked him up in the night and put him in a cell. He was in a padded cell, stark naked, which goes beside him.

02:02:11 - 02:03:06

He went totally off the rocker. He went totally nuts. I called his brother in. I think it was Han, but I don’t… Oh, hell. In San Diego. His brother was also an importer and ran a totally different importing business in Europe. Totally different, but still in animals.

02:03:08 - 02:04:30

I told him, “Frans is going bananas on me.” I described what had happened. He said, “I’ll be there as soon as I can catch a plane,” and he flew in. Frans was still in the naked cell, had dressed partially. Frans talked to him and explained that they wanted to have him in the hospital, and, “You’ll feel better,” and so on. We fixed him up at a motel. He and I and two of the biggest cops in town rode in the taxi down to the hotel, I mean down to the hospital. And he was there a week or two, Franz van den Brink. Walked to the hospital and walked back every day.

02:04:36 - 02:06:04

Finally they got him settled down enough where he was gonna fly home with Frans. They got to the airport and Frans was, was a as normal as could be expected. And his brother went to go check their… We were sitting in the motel, sitting in the restaurant at the airport, and Frans, his brother, van den Brink. Anyway, his brother went to check the time we were leaving or whatever. While he was gone (chuckles), Frans confessed to me. He said, “I put on a good act. Don’t I appear normal?” (laughing) And I said, “Have you told your brother?” And he said, “No, I’ll wait till the beer.” We got into plane (chuckling), and, oh, my God.

02:06:04 - 02:06:40

And then after that I sold all these animals. And talk about having your fingers crossed. I hope to hell the animals were there in Holland, and they were. He put ’em on the boat, and they came in. Harry Overbaugh met the shipment in time, and they met me in California and they unloaded. That was what put me in business. We were talking about animal dealers, and I had a question.

02:06:40 - 02:06:48

Was there competition between the various animal dealers for the business or to get the best sources?

02:06:48 - 02:06:53

Or was it friendly competition or business competition?

02:06:53 - 02:08:12

Oh, business competition, but there wasn’t really an open competition, not that I was aware of. Of course, I competed with the Hunt brothers. They were a big firm. They had a couple of, what I after recognized, that a couple of men with deep pockets. Where their money was coming from, I don’t know. The Hunt brothers, I have no quarrel with. I tried to outdo ’em every time I could, and they tried to outdo me, but we rarely got into close competition on something. It just wasn’t that way between us, or it wasn’t that way between me and the man in Miami.

02:08:12 - 02:08:13

Charles Chase.

02:08:13 - 02:08:15


02:08:17 - 02:09:06

Charles. Bill Chase. Oh, Bill Chase, yeah. He originally was from Massachusetts and operated and moved. Whether he had problems with his wife or didn’t have problems with his wife, I don’t know. It was none of my business. I don’t care. But he moved to Miami and opened a good business. But he operated out of two garages. I mean one or two garage, one or two automobiles garage.

02:09:08 - 02:09:14

He operated out of a small, small place originally.

02:09:14 - 02:09:17

Who were some of the animal dealers that were your contemporaries?

02:09:17 - 02:09:33

The Hunts, Bill Chase, Fred Zeehandelaar. Oh, yes. They were the two.

02:09:35 - 02:09:37

Who were the big ones?

02:09:37 - 02:09:38

The Hunts.

02:09:38 - 02:09:39


02:09:40 - 02:10:08

Fred was a big one. I don’t know how Fred operated. I have an idea of what he did and what he didn’t do and so on. I don’t know for a fact, so I don’t say anything.

02:10:08 - 02:10:14

Did you deal with other European animal dealers other than van den Brink?

02:10:16 - 02:10:58

Yes. I can’t name them offhand. Somebody in England who actually was van den Brink’s sister-in-law or something, but yes. Even after I knew she was van den Brink’s sister-in-law, I had open dealings with her. Were you selling animals not only to, wait, so you were selling animals to zoos.

02:10:58 - 02:11:02

Did you sell animals to circuses or private individuals?

02:11:02 - 02:11:49

Very seldom. Never to private in individuals that I know of. I can’t pick a name. To circuses, no. To individuals who sometimes contracted with the circus, but individuals who knew their animals. You met a guy. He’s dead now. A guy from Sarasota.

02:11:53 - 02:12:12

Connie. Who did we, we dealt with, one of the Cristianis. He has young kids now. And took care of his leopards.

02:12:12 - 02:12:15

Yeah, you mean Matthew?

02:12:15 - 02:12:16

The oldest, the oldest.

02:12:16 - 02:12:18

Frans van den Brink?

02:12:18 - 02:12:48

No, no. Cristiani we’re talking about now, Cristiani. Oh, shoot. Well, a famous riding family. Yeah, but the oldest son, but I can’t think of his name. He’ll come to me. Well, yeah. He and his wife trained leopards and did a stage act with trained leopards.

02:12:50 - 02:14:34

Somebody from your zoo called me and said, “Do you know so and so?” And I said, “Yes, I know him well.” “What’s he doing with, I think it was a snow leopard that he says belongs to you?” And I said, “He’s performing with it, and it does belong to me.” And it may have been you, but whoever it was said, he said, “You took the words right out of my mouth. What do you own a performing leopard for?” And I said, “Well, I’ll tell you, let me tell you. They have a very good leopard act.” They have very good. They had previously, they went to Europe or someplace, and they didn’t take the act. And they brought the cages out to our farm, a different one out here, and paid Anne, our daughter, could take care of the leopards. And boy, boy, they were rough, tough leopards. If I walked anywhere near their cages, they would hit the wire instantly. She could water and feed, crate.

02:14:35 - 02:15:57

Well, the story about them and the snow leopard, as I recall, was that they bought the animal, and they found out they didn’t, their permit was for (vocalizes). These leopards but not that one. And you took, I took ownership of the animal. I don’t remember, to be honest, whether money changed hands or not. I don’t think it did, but I owned the animal and stayed with Cristiani. And I took it over a year later when it came back in, in good shape. I assumed ownership of the animal, and I sold it to Cristiani, who by then had formulated the necessity of getting this species of leopard added. I don’t think I did anything wrong.

02:15:59 - 02:16:07

I was responsible for that leopard all the time it was on the road, but I legally owned it.

02:16:08 - 02:16:21

Well, when you say we’re talking about animal dealers and zoos that you sold to, what kind of benefits do you think dealers provide as suppliers for zoos?

02:16:23 - 02:16:25

Are they needed?

02:16:26 - 02:16:37

Wait. Wait a minute. Today, in this day and age, zoos do a lot of trading back and forth, and very few animals come from the wild anymore.

02:16:37 - 02:16:47

Is there a need for animal dealers now for zoos, in your opinion?

02:16:50 - 02:18:03

In my opinion, no. Zoos have gotten smart enough so they know how to do business. Zoos are a lot more knowledgeable about the laws. They used to know absolutely nothing about the laws, which is a dangerous situation to be in. That dealers knew more about the laws, but unfortunately, some of the dealers knew enough more about how to play hokey pokey with the animals. I don’t think it, I don’t think they do they do that anymore. I don’t think they do. You said your first animal shipment that put you as a dealer involved elephants.

02:18:03 - 02:18:06

You brought elephants in. Yup.

02:18:06 - 02:18:15

After that initial shipment, later as an animal dealer, did you bring other groups of elephants over?

02:18:15 - 02:18:15


02:18:16 - 02:18:21

And how difficult was it to bring these animals over?

02:18:23 - 02:18:28

Not difficult at all. If you had the money, you got the animals.

02:18:28 - 02:18:31

Was this from Africa or from Asia?

02:18:31 - 02:19:56

No, not from Asia. Africans. Asian elephants, all right, look. Let me do this. In dealing with elephants, I owned or dealt with 55 Africans, something like 32 Asians. Of those 32 Asians, I didn’t bring one out of Asia. I bought them and resold them in this country. Africans were readily available if you had the money and the sales to be able to handle them. Baby Africans in particular were readily available from, to be honest, men who got the babies when the adults, females, were killed for their tusks, as what was anything.

02:20:01 - 02:21:04

The last shipment I brought in was eight. I have a letter, wherever my files, I’d find it, but I have a letter from the countries, the man in the country of origin asking me questions about what should we do to straighten out our laws, and I answered him. I have no quarrel with their laws and had none except that I told them exactly what was happening: the females were being destroyed for their tusks, and their babies were sold by the destroyer.

02:21:07 - 02:21:22

When you were dealing with your last shipment of elephants, or even the first one, you were working, did you have to work through a intermediary, like an animal dealer like Frans?

02:21:22 - 02:21:23


02:21:23 - 02:21:24

directly to Africa?

02:21:27 - 02:21:45

As best I remember, I went directly to Africa. I can’t tell you who, but I have the correspondence with African dealers somewhere out there.

02:21:48 - 02:22:00

Did you find that the people you were selling animals to in general, in the United States, were as knowledgeable about the animals that they were buying as you would like them to have been?

02:22:00 - 02:22:01


02:22:02 - 02:22:04

Did you have to educate them?

02:22:04 - 02:22:05

Tried to.

02:22:06 - 02:22:08

Mostly successful?

02:22:11 - 02:22:37

Mostly successful. In my own case, I would say totally unsuccessful. I trained Connie. I sold her to a circus where I thought she was, I knew she was going to. Somebody had another Asian. African.

02:22:39 - 02:22:39


02:22:40 - 02:22:42


02:22:44 - 02:23:17

Another African, yeah. just ask the question again, just ’cause you brought it up. Tell me the story of Connie the elephant. Well, – Connie was one of eight that I imported in the late ’60s. I can’t remember the exact year. I have it right here. 1988. 1988. Okay. None of the eight was tame.

02:23:20 - 02:24:33

The crates that they originally came in are (chuckles) out here, crumbling away. There were three, three, one, and one. That’s the number of animals kept in each crate. They were housed in the big barn, the eight. The barn was much different than it is now, the interior. The eight were unloaded by the two of us. A guy, and his wife was here, but she didn’t got involved, a guy who has a group of elephants, performing elephants. He has all Asians, I believe, still.

02:24:37 - 02:25:49

They’re well trained, very well cared for. He had previously bought I don’t know how many, two or four, something like that. I think two, and he had, I think, one out of that shipment. But anyway, he lives up five miles out the highway. The shipment came in to Miami. They were trucked up here after clearing customs. They were shipped by air from Africa to Germany, I believe, where they changed airlines and then got straight into Miami. And they were trucked up from Miami, including customs in Miami.

02:25:54 - 02:26:28

They were tough animals. They weren’t by any means tame. Rougher in hell. (chuckles) It took all day to unload the eight elephants. We were inspected that afternoon before we even had him 24 hours by a state inspector.

02:26:37 - 02:26:40

Who? Who, dear?

02:26:40 - 02:26:45

Come here. She’s out with the dog. She went outside. Oh, with the dog. Okay.

02:26:47 - 02:26:50

So Connie was one of these elephants?

02:26:50 - 02:27:57

Yes. This was financed by a man in Miami. I sober. Oop, sober. A good man. Good in the sense that his money bought the elephants. I sold them. I got them, I sold them, and so on. I unloaded them with the two of us and about three other people, all of whom were familiar with elephants and knew what we were talking about as we said it.

02:28:01 - 02:29:09

They arrived here about 9:00 or 9:30 in the morning. We finished unloading at three in the afternoon, four in the afternoon, something like that. One at a time in the barn, chained an individual, rear, front rear, front and rear chains, and chained in place, front and rear. As soon as possible, we were feeding and giving him good water to drink and so on. We were inspected that afternoon by a state inspector and then we started.

02:29:09 - 02:29:11

So they were all sold?

02:29:11 - 02:30:04

No, not by any means. Three of them were sold as a group to Providence, Rhode Island. They were picked up by Allen Campbell who had previously been an elephant man in the Jacksonville Zoo and worked for me after leaving Jacksonville. was coming and going. He wanted to be an elephant trainer. He was a good, good man. He was killed in Hawaii by an elephant.

02:30:11 - 02:30:13

What was I (chuckling)?

02:30:13 - 02:30:17

So we’re talking about Connie as part of that elephant shipment. Yeah, yeah.

02:30:17 - 02:30:20

How did you decide to keep that elephant?

02:30:20 - 02:31:50

All right. Connie grew a tusk, not a tusk, a wart on the side of her face where her tusk would’ve come out. This was a wart, a wart that started when she was here maybe four weeks, three, four weeks. But by the time she got any size to her, people were taking a long hard look at that wart. We separated her from the others as soon as she could be led around out here. Every day, in progression, you start leading them just outside the door, and they come back in always at feeding time, so they come back easy. And we then get, we let around and back at feeding time always. And then they go in cheerfully, and you don’t have a big battle every time.

02:31:51 - 02:32:48

So eight of ’em. This took a good part of the afternoon, just doing that much training. Anyway, Connie, you’re with a wart on her face. Somewhere along about 30 days, we separated her. We put her around in a little barn that was in good shape then. Kept her separate from the others. We didn’t show her to the other people who were picking out elephant for themselves. We didn’t hide her.

02:32:50 - 02:33:17

We didn’t advertise that we had another elephant. This is a good salesmanship. Once we moved her, she started rubbing the tusk on the concrete wall, and she eventually rubbed it completely off. By that time, we were in love with her, so that’s why we kept her.

02:33:23 - 02:33:34

The three were sold by Allen Campbell, who was then in Little Rock?

02:33:34 - 02:34:31

Baton Rouge. He had gone from being a keeper in Jacksonville to getting the title of elephant trainer in Baton Rouge. He did a salesmanship job on them, and it was a pretty good damn trainer. Anyway. Connie was not trained, not sold simply because we kept her hidden while the damn wart on her face was growing out, and she got rid of the wart, and by then the others were sold.

02:34:35 - 02:34:39

What was your plan for this elephant now?

02:34:39 - 02:35:45

We had no plan for it, but she was here, and we loved her. We took her out in the field, out in front. It was well fenced. She walked along with us and became a trained elephant. Not very well trained but trained. Our son Tom was working with a guy that lived down the road named Rex Williams, and he was working for Circus Vargas out of California. Circus Vargas showed signs of being another Ringling. It was a big, healthy, and very well-managed service.

02:35:49 - 02:36:27

Tom met his wife there. His wife had been, this girl, had been boss showgirl on the Ringling show and was hired away from the Ringling show by Cliff Vargas, who was a gay and means nothing, a gay guy that owned this, this fabulous big show on the West Coast. He met his wife there, and they eventually married.

02:36:33 - 02:36:34

Where was I?

02:36:34 - 02:36:57

Well, you’re talking about Connie the elephant. As you’re progressing, you have an elephant now, and you’re trying to figure out what to do with it. Yeah. Okay. Tom came in here with his wife and two or three elephants. Two elephants I think he had at first.

02:36:59 - 02:37:01


02:37:02 - 02:37:41

And they came in, they were chained out in the field, out in front. They had nothing to do with Connie. Obviously she knew the elephants were there. They were aware of her being here too. They saw each other usually. So he was here with two elephants, and they came and went according to where Cliff Vargas booked them.

02:37:43 - 02:37:50

So when did you decide you had to start training Connie to do something?

02:37:50 - 02:38:14

‘Cause she’s costing you money here. Well, you’re constantly training with no end in sight. You can’t handle an elephant without training. It realizes you want something, and it does it.

02:38:19 - 02:38:24

Did you have different training methods that you were saying you thought would work better?

02:38:24 - 02:38:25


02:38:25 - 02:38:29

How’d you develop those, from your experience?

02:38:29 - 02:39:21

From common sense. We weren’t being rough with ’em. It’s common sense on the part of circus trainers to go well at it. And when the elephant doesn’t do what you expect it to do, knock hell out of it, jab it in the leg with a bull hook. I didn’t do that. I just kept training. We tried using a platform to try to train her to come up to the platform and stand there and let somebody get on her. Hell, we never got the point of anybody getting on her.

02:39:21 - 02:40:13

You couldn’t even get to come up to a platform with somebody standing on the platform. And it was at this point Tom was booked in to Omaha for the summer with a ride elephant. Somehow, I don’t know how he worked it or who did, who did what to who, but- Liz. Liz, the elephant you got from Cuneo. Tom went up there first with Liz. Liz, elephant. L-I-Z, Liz. Liz, yes.

02:40:15 - 02:40:18

All right, she belonged to?

02:40:18 - 02:41:02

Cuneo. That’s what I thought. He decided he would take this giving elephant rides with Liz and went into, into Omaha with her. God almighty, big old truck. It just about made it everywhere it went. He had her here. I don’t remember what he went to Ringling for. You went with him on that trip.

02:41:02 - 02:41:29

with the clowns and they needed a, their elephants were out on the road, and they needed an elephant that was manageable enough to stand with strangers, the clowns. He took her over there, and they made the commercial, and then came back. Yeah, anyway. He was booked into Omaha with the elephant.

02:41:30 - 02:41:33

And this was 1989, right?

02:41:33 - 02:42:36

I’m not sure. Well, I’m pretty sure. Going by the age of Connie, we had Connie about a year by then, ’89. And we went ahead. We used Connie at a Circus Days celebration in Sarasota. We could truck her around and use her for being an elephant. We still were training, hopefully to do rides. Okay, the following year, 1990, Omaha Zoo wanted Tom back.

02:42:37 - 02:42:47

Tom was invited to come to Circus Vargas, and he went to Circus Vargas.

02:42:48 - 02:42:55

We got a hold of Liz?

02:43:00 - 02:44:06

Is it Liz or Debbie? I can’t remember. Cuneo. We took two of them out from Cuneo’s place, two different ones. Liz was one and I think Debbie was the other one. And I can’t remember that year, whether you had Debbie when Connie watched your rides, that year. I wasn’t aware that there were two different elephants. But, anyway, we went ahead and leased the second elephant from her owner, Cuneo, to go back to Omaha and do rides. I swear, she was the same elephant, but anyway, we took Connie in our truck and trailer, and I can show you a picture of when we sold it, the rig we had.

02:44:07 - 02:44:22

We took her in, up, and had to hire an elephant trucker to move the elephant from?

02:44:26 - 02:44:27


02:44:27 - 02:44:56

Hawthorn. Hawthorn Corporation was Cuneo’s. Hawthorn Corp, yeah. From Cuneo’s to Omaha. I met her at Omaha. She and Connie loved each other instantly. I led Connie. You have to see the Omaha Zoo.

02:44:56 - 02:46:05

It’s up a hillside, not open to the public, up a hillside. And at the top of the hill, we parked our vehicles, and the elephant stayed up there and came down the hill in the morning every day and went back at night. Connie, again, still, wouldn’t have anything to do with rides. I first chained her. We couldn’t let her wander loose in the ride area, and I chained her. The outcry from the public was loud enough so that we instantly picked up on it. “Oh, they’re keeping that elephant chained away from her mother. They’re keeping their elephant chained in this hot sun,” and it was a shaded place.

02:46:07 - 02:47:16

And, “She can’t get her. She can’t nurse. It’s an Asian elephant doing rides,” and Connie was an African elephant. Two totally different species. And the public right away, “It’s mother and baby.” So I bought a heavy nylon leash the same length as the chain. Used the leash to hook it on her, a nylon collar, big size dog collar, and put that on her foot. She was going peacefully. She would stand on one end of the ride area, and the other elephant, the big elephant, would do rides.

02:47:19 - 02:48:47

Nobody said anything. Once in a while, we’d turn ’em loose at the end of the day and Connie would follow the other elephant wherever she went. And we’d take, drove them back, back up, up the hill, back up to their trailer. About somewhere along about July 15, I asked the girl working for me, “How about we bring that out, the baby elephant over here?” We had a separate platform for her, just shorter platform, and, “Bring her up to the short platform and you stand on the platform.” She said, “Okay, that’s fine.” I did it, and the elephant walked right up to the platform and stood there. And I took her, move up. She moved up. Turn right. She turn right. Go around the loop a couple of times, and she did this just fine.

02:48:49 - 02:49:19

And the girl said, “When do I get on her?” And I said, “Well, this may be a little rough, but try it.” She came up to the platform, and the girl got on her back and sat there. And the elephant walked ahead and walked around the loop, a hundred yard loop, and walked around the loop and came back to the platform and stood there.

02:49:19 - 02:49:22

Did you have a howdah made for Connie yet?

02:49:22 - 02:50:11

What did the girl, girl had something to hold onto to, I remember. Yes, yes. She had a baby howdah. Just a different, the only difference were baby ones. And she came back to the platform and stood there. The girl got off, and she walked around again with nobody. And then the girl got on and walked around the loop, and, my God, this animal was fully trained from watching the other animal do the rides for a couple of months. It totally happened on its own. My God.

02:50:11 - 02:50:24

Now, Frank, you mentioned that people were upset about Connie being chained up. Yes. with little adjustments so they didn’t- Well, I fixed it by replacing the chain with an nylon leash.

02:50:24 - 02:50:32

Did you have issues with animal rights organizations when you were doing this kind of thing or just individual citizens?

02:50:32 - 02:50:52

We don’t wait for animal rights organizations. You listen to the public very carefully, and we heard enough so that we changed that leash from a chain to a nylon leash. Do it instantly.

02:50:53 - 02:51:03

Just a follow-up question, when you were director of either Evansville or Jacksonville, which we’ll talk about, but when you were director, did you ever have problems with animal rights people?

02:51:06 - 02:51:29

Not that I’m aware of. If somebody complained, not to me but just complained about an animal not being treated properly, we got into action right away. Certainly.

02:51:31 - 02:51:41

And how long, so Connie was now giving rides, and you were, so you were working her?

02:51:41 - 02:51:42


02:51:42 - 02:51:48

And how long did you work her or did you ultimately have to move her to a zoo?

02:51:48 - 02:52:12

No, I worked her giving rides. I came back, and in November when we went over to the, it’s now a baseball field, a dome over in St. Pete.

02:52:15 - 02:52:16

What was the occasion?

02:52:16 - 02:52:44

It was the Halloween celebration that you went, took the elephant over there for. It hadn’t quite finished the inside yet. Well, Jesus. There’s a dome. And we took her over there. Was fine with the children. We walked in and walked out. We had to have a police guard walking us out because everybody wanted to go run up and pet the elephant.

02:52:48 - 02:53:19

She was perfectly handled. We worked at a house out on the island, a birthday party. Somebody wanted to spend the money to hire an elephant ride for a birthday party. We were- Frank, mention how it came upon, the method to get her to lie down.

02:53:19 - 02:53:24

Remember the banana, how she would try to get the banana under the wire?

02:53:25 - 02:54:29

She would go- No, I don’t remember. No. But Frank, when you were training Connie, you realized that positive reinforcement was the best way. Sure. The only way, as far as I’m concerned. The only time I was rough with her was the day before she was picked up as sold, and she ran away from me in the back. Ran around the building and came up here halfway and wouldn’t come when I called her. And I walked up to her and led her back, got her chained, and then I gave her a shock.

02:54:30 - 02:54:32

That’s the only shock she ever had.

02:54:35 - 02:54:36

Where did Connie go?

02:54:38 - 02:55:11

All right, she was sold to a circus, Culpepper and Merriweather Circus. It’s a little show, but they had an Asian elephant. Young, the same age as Connie. Excuse me, it was an African, like Connie. It wasn’t an Asian. it was an African. You’re right. Because she was going with another African. I felt that was important.

02:55:13 - 02:56:08

Keep her away from Asians. Yes. (chuckling) I don’t know where I was. I lost my train of thought. And she was going to the circus. Yeah, I was- Someone who knew. Physically, I was getting rough to handle her. He had a stroke and was diagnosed with diabetes right after he came back from Omaha that time, and for health reasons, he decided. Yeah, while I was in Omaha, I had a stroke.

02:56:10 - 02:56:20

Just my left arm. It’s fine now. Now let me ask a another question here though.

02:56:21 - 02:56:31

While you were in the animal business and you were working Connie, you were also doing some things as a zoo designer and a consultant?

02:56:32 - 02:56:37

Eh. Very little.

02:56:38 - 02:56:46

But had you formulated some ideas based on your experience about ways for zoos to improve design and exhibits?

02:56:48 - 02:57:27

Yes. I can’t remember now (chuckling), but elephants in particular ought to be wandering around a field rather than. Frank, a question about, we’re talking about dealing with animals and selling, buying and selling.

02:57:28 - 02:57:37

To what extent did your business government regulations over the years complicate the importation, if at all?

02:57:39 - 02:57:53

Yes, it complicated it to the extent that almost everything you do is regulated by government law in some aspects.

02:57:56 - 02:58:07

And ultimately, why did you decide to leave the business of dealing with animals as a broker?

02:58:10 - 02:58:36

To be honest, my health was deteriorating. I just couldn’t keep up with it. Keep up with the requirements. And I was tired.

02:58:38 - 02:58:46

[Mark[ But how did it come about then that you became the director of the Jacksonville Zoo?

02:58:46 - 02:58:47

How did that come about?

02:58:49 - 02:59:38

Darn if I know. (laughing) That’s a great answer. No, I really don’t remember. I remember the Jacksonville Zoo, of course. I really took the zoo under the assumption that I would be keeping my history of zoo running clean and healthy, and that wasn’t to be.

02:59:38 - 02:59:40

What kind of zoo did you find when you became director?

02:59:44 - 03:00:03

A mixed up zoo, one in which a lot of things needed to be corrected. I just didn’t feel able.

03:00:07 - 03:00:16

And what was some of the first things you thought about doing as zoo director after you saw the condition of the zoo?

03:00:18 - 03:01:00

Well, when I went there, there was a long and roundabout train track running, and I don’t think that it should have been that long. I shortened it somewhat, and I think it, it ran better.

03:01:03 - 03:01:06

What were some of the condition, how was the condition of the animal?

03:01:08 - 03:01:15

In general, the animals were in fairly good condition.

03:01:18 - 03:01:22

Was it a good collection in your estimation or representative collection?

03:01:25 - 03:01:45

I really can’t remember enough now, enough about the collection to say that. I can’t say it was good, and I certainly can’t say it was bad. But there were problems at the zoo. Yes, there were problems.

03:01:45 - 03:01:47

How did you discover those problems?

03:01:50 - 03:02:10

Well, the problems in general were drug. Not being a drug person, I did not welcome that part.

03:02:13 - 03:02:15

Did you get the police involved?

03:02:16 - 03:02:19

Yes, on several occasions.

03:02:22 - 03:02:25

Were you ever fearful for yourself or your family?

03:02:28 - 03:03:33

Not really. I should have been, but I wasn’t. I think just some phone calls that were a little scary was all that- Yes. I don’t think it was ever any danger of bodily harm, but people were trying to scare us. (chuckling) Really. (chuckling) We, of course, didn’t know that when we went there, but as I remember, someone, and I can’t recall, before you went to Jacksonville, someone was talking to you about, “Frank, you ought to go there and (chuckling) straighten the place out,” but I can’t remember who you were talking to. Somebody that knew that knew the zoo more, better than we did. Here we are in Florida, but we didn’t know that much about the zoo. And you actually thought, “Well, maybe I can do something.” (chuckling) I can’t remember, but I should. (Connie chuckling) It apparently was fairly well known as problems.

03:03:38 - 03:03:43

Were you able to, with the help of the police, were you able to solve that particular problem?

03:03:45 - 03:04:28

No, I don’t think so. I don’t know because I’m not aware of the, I’m not aware of the transactions that go into that sort of, that sort of a build or that sort of a structure. I think people felt, well, people that worked in the zoo that were not into drugs felt that you did some good because some people were not with the zoo anymore that maybe were instigating things like this, and so I think he did some good in getting rid of those people.

03:04:29 - 03:04:36

Well, what was your relationship with the staff and the curators when you came in?

03:04:36 - 03:04:40

Did you bring in new people or were the people there doing a job at that level?

03:04:43 - 03:05:13

My relationship, I think, was good, but I may have been kidding myself. Several of the staff were, let’s say, were creating problems.

03:05:14 - 03:05:19

What kind of, how would you describe your style of management?

03:05:19 - 03:05:34

(Frank laughing) I really don’t think I’ve got a style.

03:05:37 - 03:05:38

Well, anybody could talk to you at any time?

03:05:38 - 03:05:41

You would have an open door policy or?

03:05:41 - 03:05:45

Yeah, yeah. Sure.

03:05:46 - 03:05:55

Now while all these things were going on at the zoo, that you were trying to deal with, was the city supportive, or the board?

03:05:55 - 03:05:57

Were they supportive of your efforts?

03:06:00 - 03:07:12

I would say no. In fact, when I decided I wanted to leave, I wrote a letter to the chairman of the board and said that I would like to leave, and I thought he ought to be aware of that. That letter was written in August. Just about Christmastime, the same man asked me how an orang was doing. We had purchased the orang in Texas, and he asked me this question in December, after I said that I’d like to leave. This doesn’t seem like a man that’s tending to business.

03:07:14 - 03:07:18

When you were director at the zoo, did you make rounds?

03:07:18 - 03:07:19


03:07:19 - 03:07:20


03:07:20 - 03:07:21


03:07:21 - 03:07:24

How important do you think that is for a zoo director?

03:07:24 - 03:07:25

Very important.

03:07:25 - 03:07:27

Well, why is it very important?

03:07:29 - 03:07:49

You can see things happening in one exhibit, something happening that shouldn’t happen, and you see it once. And if you see it again tomorrow and the day after, it is in trouble.

03:07:57 - 03:08:06

Did some of the things that you hoped to accomplish at the Jackson Zoo, were you able to have accomplished them when you left?

03:08:07 - 03:08:11

Some of the things. A few of the things, yes.

03:08:11 - 03:08:12

Like what?

03:08:14 - 03:08:22

Aside from the train. I would rather not comment on that.

03:08:25 - 03:08:27

Can I remind you of something?

03:08:27 - 03:09:05

Yes. new bird exhibits that you had them put in. You had the bus ride out into the rhino exhibit. That was all changed when you were there, and people loved that idea of riding the bus out to be among the rhinos. Yes. all the planning. All the plannings that were put in. I think the look of the zoo changed greatly while you were there, if you’ll remember.

03:09:07 - 03:09:26

That’s the key to thing, if I remember. (Frank and Connie laughing) Well, I tell you, there are people that’ll agree with me that you made a big change. I know, I don’t know the problems internally, but I do know that from what you could see as a visitor, it improved greatly.

03:09:27 - 03:09:32

Frank, did you have to deal with the press when you were director at Jacksonville?

03:09:33 - 03:09:34


03:09:34 - 03:09:37

What was your attitude toward the press?

03:09:37 - 03:09:41

How did you nurture the relationship with them? Or did you?

03:09:45 - 03:10:02

I did at first, and I don’t think I did enough at the end. I had just had it, and I wanted out.

03:10:04 - 03:10:13

And as director in Jacksonville, were you ever called upon to do any fundraising for the zoo?

03:10:15 - 03:10:16


03:10:17 - 03:10:18

How did you find that role?

03:10:18 - 03:10:25

Did you embrace it, did you think it was a pain in the rear end, or did you understand it, or how good were you at it?

03:10:26 - 03:10:57

I wasn’t very good at it. I was approached about mass trips to Africa. Another zoo director, I won’t name him, but another zoo director took advantage of it and turned it into a career. I didn’t.

03:11:04 - 03:11:07

Were you successful, even though you might not have been happy about it, in raising money?

03:11:07 - 03:11:10

I mean, did you get some good donations?

03:11:15 - 03:11:28

I don’t think so. I don’t think I raised enough. Well, now that we have Connie sitting next to you, I have some, if I can go back, I have some circus questions to ask.

03:11:29 - 03:11:40

The first thing I’d like to ask is, what was your first impressions of this young man when you first met him?

03:11:43 - 03:12:18

He was a very good drummer. (chuckling) No, he was very interesting when I got to know him and talk with him. I was interested in where he lived in New England, and he was so interested in everything about the circus because he had been a circus fan, I guess, for a very long time. But I thought he was smart, and he was interesting.

03:12:18 - 03:12:19

Well, how old were you?

03:12:19 - 03:12:20

I was 18.

03:12:22 - 03:12:24

You were in the family act?

03:12:24 - 03:12:54

That’s right. Yeah, my father- I performed with my brother and the trampoline and aerial work. My father was the question director. My mother traveled with us. She no longer worked in the acts. Just my brother and I. In the circus and on a lot, it’s a very close society. Everybody knows what everybody’s doing. Pretty much.

03:12:54 - 03:12:59

How was it able, how were you able to conduct a romance?

03:13:00 - 03:13:52

Well, after the, usually, when according to the performance, what the acts they’re doing, you don’t always eat a heavy meal before the night performance. You eat lightly. And after the last performance at night, people will get together and eat. If you’re Italian family, you’ve got the spaghetti pot going. At our place, my mother would maybe make hamburgers and invited Frank over, and it would be people. Like, not a party, but I mean a backyard get together. But it was after the show. That’s the performers. Of course the tent had to be taken down and everything, but this, the house trailers and everything, were usually parked a little over to the side.

03:13:53 - 03:13:59

But I mean, there was a social time that you got to know each other.

03:14:00 - 03:14:03

But is it difficult to have time alone?

03:14:05 - 03:14:20

Well, on Sundays, we always had Sundays off. You’d go to the movies, usually go to the movies, after the girls that did… I thought this was funny.

03:14:20 - 03:14:28

If you know what a aerial web is like, the girls climbed the white canvas webs, okay?

03:14:28 - 03:14:46

My father insisted that they be white. And so early Sunday morning, all the girls would be scrubbing their webs, and they had to be dried. Then after that, you could do whatever you cared to do with your rest of your Sunday afternoon.

03:14:47 - 03:14:50

Did it surprise you that Frank was sleeping with the elephants?

03:14:50 - 03:14:53

(laughing) Not then.

03:14:53 - 03:15:06

He told me that story later. (chuckling) No, he didn’t smell like an elephant. (chuckling) And how did your family take to this young drummer?

03:15:07 - 03:15:29

Well, I think they thought he was nice. Probably though when they thought we were getting serious, they looked at him in a little different light, I guess, for a while. (chuckling) “Well, now,” you know? (chuckling) Of course all circus families like to keep the kids close by, I guess, but, no, they got along with Frank.

03:15:30 - 03:15:40

And after you, what was, for both of you, what was a day in the life of on the lot like?

03:15:40 - 03:15:44

I mean, you’re not together all the time.

03:15:44 - 03:15:47

So what was a kind of a day like?

03:15:47 - 03:15:50

And when did you interact with each other?

03:15:50 - 03:16:50

And you had your two different jobs to do and so forth. Well, the way I see it in performing, everybody’s very serious about what you have to do, and you get a routine, and, of course, passing each other, working around the backyard, getting ready for the performance, getting your costume ready, or doing some washing or whatever it is you’re doing, well, you see each other. You say, “Hi,” or, “I’ll see you later,” or whatever. So there’s interaction all day even though you’re tending to what you have to tend to. He might be changing the head of his drums or whatever, getting ready for the afternoon. He had to be ready before I did because they usually, the band played prior to the performance sometimes. And yet, we had a full day just doing our job, but it didn’t mean we couldn’t see each other in that, in performing those things.

03:16:50 - 03:16:59

Frank, did you have more time as a musician than Connie did as a performer?

03:16:59 - 03:18:04

Because you had your sheet music out. You already knew what you were gonna play. Probably played it 3,000 times. Not quite. Getting ready to play, just walk on the bandstand and take your drum out and play the prescribed music. The show we were with had a very good band director. We went on the bandstand and played for at least 15 minutes before the afternoon show, and that 15 minutes was in that show pretty well. Stranger’s music.

03:18:04 - 03:18:58

I mean, everything new came out of the leader’s trunk, and the music was passed around, and it was different every day. In that sense, every show was different. The scheduled acts were always the same or primarily the same. But the before the show music, that 15 minutes before the show, was very difficult sometimes. Now in all the circus people that I’ve had the good fortune to talk with, you’ve always had all kinds of stories.

03:18:58 - 03:19:03

Are there any memorable stories from circus days that you can relate?

03:19:03 - 03:19:11

Any big storms where there’s a blowdown, any animal escapes, any scandal, anything?

03:19:11 - 03:19:21

Anything or any great performances that you had the opportunity to see, someone doing the triple for the first time or something?

03:19:21 - 03:19:30

Like Frank remembers that first time when your father slid down on his head and did… It created such a memory for him.

03:19:30 - 03:19:33

Was there any memorable stories?

03:19:33 - 03:20:59

Maybe one from each of you that, “I remember I was there when.” I see, well when you said blowdown, thank goodness I was never on a tent circus when they had a tragic blowdown, but I do remember there was a tornado sighted that was coming. All the weather reports said it was coming to this town that the circus was already had the tent up and everything. And so the word was out that they had to take the tent down right away. And, oh, I was just a kid, but there were things that everybody could do. Everybody pitched in, in other words, and whoever was in charge of of tents would tell ’em what they needed to do to help ’em get everything down fast because this was fast approaching. To me it was exciting ’cause I saw this funnel coming in the distance, and everybody was hoping, of course, it wouldn’t come our way, which, thank God, it did miss us, but it made me know that when I heard of blowdowns, people were actually in the tents and have a blowdown like that. What a trial it must have been for them. So let me think what else.

03:21:00 - 03:21:07

I wasn’t much into scandals. (chuckling) My mother and father sorta kept me away from that.

03:21:11 - 03:21:12

Do you work with the elephants?

03:21:12 - 03:21:18

Oh, I rode one in the spectacular at the beginning, I believe that year.

03:21:19 - 03:21:22

Let me see, who did I ride?

03:21:22 - 03:21:26

One-Eyed Modoc, I believe, is the elephant that I rode in spec. Okay.

03:21:28 - 03:21:42

And on another circus that I was on with my family, Jimmy Cole, I believe it was Jimmy Cole Circus, I rode, what was the elephant’s name?

03:21:42 - 03:21:55

I also rode an elephant in spec. That was my only contact with elephants before I married Frank, was to be the girl on the elephant riding in spec around.

03:22:03 - 03:22:06

Where did you get your costumes that you wore?

03:22:06 - 03:22:08

Did you make them?

03:22:08 - 03:22:10

but my mother did.

03:22:11 - 03:22:14

Did she design them?

03:22:16 - 03:23:02

Of course, they were quite different (chuckling) in our day, in our day than you see today. It makes me laugh about Papa. He was so discouraged when they stopped wearing tights. (chuckling) And that was a long time ago, girls come out without tights. But on some things like web, you climbed the web, wrapping your leg around the web every day, and if you didn’t wear tights, you had the ugliest looking callous develop on your leg, where it would rub every day. So really it was to wear tights, flesh-colored tights, people from a distance didn’t know you had them on, but was really a protective, skin protective. So I’m glad that he had us wear tights.

03:23:03 - 03:23:08

Frank, do you have any when I was there story?

03:23:08 - 03:24:59

I was there when the band leader forgot the music. (Connie laughing) No, but there’s one story about snakes. I’ve been a snake lover since I was a little kid, and I had a job before my circus days. I worked for a man that had a show that people come in, they climbed up on the side of a semi-trailer that had a four-foot-high railing around. And you looked over through a, looked over into the semi-trailer. There were various reptiles there. This one summer I worked in a show like that, that had some big snakes, and one time I was trying to tame down several big pythons. We got an 18-foot Burmese python and a 14 footer.

03:25:01 - 03:26:18

And I was putting the snakes away one night, and I was in a hurry. Instead of waiting for the ticket seller to close down his operation and come in and help me get the 18 footer in her box for the night, I tried to do it myself. It was a big female. She struck at me and bit me in the leg. Their teeth are fairly effective, and she punctured my left, left leg, pants leg. Her teeth went through and cut my skin pretty full. I knelt down and tried to get her foot or her teeth untangled from my pants leg. That was a mistake because she curled around my body and pinned my arms down to my sides.

03:26:19 - 03:27:26

I was grabbing her head, but she started squeezing, and she got my arms down to my side and squeezed. It was closing time. We were closing for the night, and I was dependent on the ticket seller to finish counting his tickets and doing his work, and coming in to help me with that last female. He didn’t come. I decided I had better start yelling for help. I yelled. No sound came out because I couldn’t yell. I could hear a couple come up to the ticket seller and want to come in the show, and he told them no, that he’s putting all the snakes away.

03:27:29 - 03:28:04

He said he had just two left inside. I’m going in to help him. And they begged him to see those two, and he let them in. I remember hearing the girl scream, (laughing) as she look over the wall. Thank goodness. in pretty bad shape on the floor, but she screamed and got help. They unwrapped the snake. And rescued me.

03:28:04 - 03:28:06

And I’ll see you around.

03:28:06 - 03:28:07

What’s her name?

03:28:07 - 03:28:29

We have to call her and thank her for this- The nameless rescuer. Yeah, thank goodness. Yeah, the snakes are very effective. We got her in her box. The next night I did the same thing again, and she didn’t strike again. Wait a minute.

03:28:29 - 03:28:31

You had help the second time, didn’t you?

03:28:31 - 03:28:50

Yes. You did learn your lesson. (chuckling) I learned rapidly. I was gonna go to some general questions now. Of the two zoos that you worked at- Three.

03:28:50 - 03:28:52

you accomplished the most?

03:28:52 - 03:29:11

Three actually. Three public zoos. Three. Three, right. Or four, sorry. Four private zoos. Catskill. I’m sorry, Roland, you’re correct. (Connie chuckling) The zoo in Evansville, Indiana.

03:29:12 - 03:29:13

I agree.

03:29:14 - 03:29:23

What do you think, well, why did you think that was the most important?

03:29:26 - 03:30:03

I was able to get my ideas across. They weren’t very complicated, and they were fairly simple, and they accepted. The people in charge accepted what I did. I started a magazine. They’d never had a publication before. We had a monthly magazine that we publish every month. You had a wonderful society there. We had a wonderful society as a result of the magazine.

03:30:08 - 03:30:11

I enjoyed it so very much.

03:30:15 - 03:30:19

Did you start the volunteer program at the zoo there?

03:30:19 - 03:30:20


03:30:20 - 03:30:21

At the Evansville Zoo?

03:30:21 - 03:30:22


03:30:22 - 03:30:30

And when you got to Jacksonville, did you continue the volunteer program because of your experience or did they already have one?

03:30:30 - 03:30:50

No, not because of the experience. We already had one and I continued it. It didn’t work out as successfully as the one in Evansville.

03:30:52 - 03:30:54

What do you think made you a good zoo director?

03:30:55 - 03:31:13

I don’t know that I was. I try my best, and that’s all you can do. I knew how a good zoo is run, and I tried to run my own that way.

03:31:15 - 03:31:23

Well, now what kind of skills do you think a new director today needs as compared to when you were director?

03:31:26 - 03:31:45

It’s not that much different. I don’t think it’s that much different. Now I’ve been out of the zoo directing business for a long time, and it may have changed, but I don’t think that it has changed that much.

03:31:47 - 03:31:50

Well, what skillset would you say you need then?

03:31:50 - 03:31:55

If it hasn’t changed, what are those basics that haven’t changed that someone should have?

03:31:56 - 03:32:41

Be truthful. Be truthful with handling your staff. Be truthful with handling customers. Be truthful when you report what you’re doing. If you depend on the truth, you can’t go wrong too far. Now you’ve had such a diverse experience: animal dealing, work at the private Lindemann Catskill Game Farm, the public zoos that you’d worked for.

03:32:41 - 03:32:52

Do you think that these kind of experiences that you’ve had provided an important lesson for an aspiring zoo director today that could benefit them?

03:32:52 - 03:33:08

Do you think this diversity of seeing so many things is a positive thing for new zoo directors coming in, to get this kind of breadth of experience that you were fortunate to have?

03:33:09 - 03:33:38

No, I think that anybody, especially if you have had enough training to be in line for a zoo director’s job, but be honest, be truthful, and you’re not gonna go wrong if you have the knowledge you should have in the beginning.

03:33:40 - 03:33:49

What do you think zoos of the future will evolve into, both from animal care and maybe meeting the needs of the public?

03:33:50 - 03:33:56

If you could look into the future a little, will they still be here?

03:33:58 - 03:35:24

I think so. Heaven knows what we would have without them, but I think zoos may limit their dealings to animals that are very well known. You cannot have a zoo that is composed solely of your neighborhood wildlife. That has very little interest to most people. Having this, the animal life that comes from far away, is useful, and it teaches you how to treat other people because you don’t necessarily know how they want to be treated or how they handle their own form of animal. It’s gonna take a mixture.

03:35:25 - 03:35:34

You indicated in the last question, you said, “Well, I hope they’re in the future.” Why do we need zoos, in your opinion?

03:35:37 - 03:35:57

We need zoos in order to protect the wildlife we have in the world now. Without zoos, that wildlife is gonna disappear. In your career, you’ve received, I’m sure, a lot of advice.

03:35:59 - 03:36:08

Is there something that stands out as the most important piece of advice that you received that kinda followed you through your career in all aspects?

03:36:11 - 03:36:20

Be truthful. Don’t try and hide things. That’s it.

03:36:21 - 03:36:30

Would you recommend the zoo, an aquarium profession to a young person today who had a interest in wildlife and conservation?

03:36:30 - 03:36:31

If you said yes, why?

03:36:36 - 03:37:13

Definitely, yes. It’s a tough, tough business. Every day presents you with choices about the truth or not the truth, and you better choose right. Evansville Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, Catskill Game Farm, Fort Worth, all these zoos I would kind of call medium-sized zoos in their day, when you were there.

03:37:13 - 03:37:22

What do you think those small- or medium-sized zoo today can do to be involved in wildlife conservation?

03:37:29 - 03:37:33

I really couldn’t come up with a recommendation.

03:37:35 - 03:37:42

When you were at the zoos you were director, did you try and do some conservation things as much as your zoo could do?

03:37:43 - 03:37:44

Oh, yes.

03:37:45 - 03:37:51

What were some of those that you tried to implement or were already there in place when you got there?

03:37:54 - 03:39:00

The Catskill Game Farm was a private venture, not a public zoo, but it was very, very carefully handled by its owner. In spite of the fact that he fired me, (Frank and Connie chuckling) he emphasized the vanishing species that he dealt with: the wild horses, the Siberian lynx, the parrots of Australia. These were all vanishing. Look, there aren’t some of those around anymore. And it was worthwhile. It was well-handled.

03:39:04 - 03:39:12

What do you say to those people who still believe that zoos are nothing more than a place where they cage animals?

03:39:12 - 03:39:14

Is there any answer one can give them?

03:39:14 - 03:40:08

No, no, no, a cage is just a, just a way of keeping the animal from running away from you. It’s not a punishment. A well-designed cage usually protects the animal from all eventualities, and it should. A caged animal is often very happy. Often. We were talking about advice earlier.

03:40:08 - 03:40:16

Any advice you would give to the new zoo director about the importance of marketing your zoo?

03:40:19 - 03:40:47

No, I think that that depends on the zoo director and the era in which he is head of a zoo. You have to play the game as it happens to you. You have an expertise in elephants, learned over the years.

03:40:47 - 03:40:55

Given that experience, what’s your view about zoos maintaining elephants and how it should be done correctly?

03:40:59 - 03:42:09

First of all, Asian elephants should not be kept with African elephants. The two species should be kept separate. That way, you don’t find an African dying of a disease that only Asians have. Elephants do not require a large area. Yes, they migrate long, long distances in Africa, not because they have to but because they have to get food or water. If they get the food or water in one place, they stay around. They don’t wander aimlessly. Same species, separate from the other species.

03:42:13 - 03:43:30

Handle them with care and easily. Don’t get rough. Don’t get rough with them. I’ve handled 55 African elephants and about 32 Asians. Of the two, Africans were much preferred by me. Asians can be rougher, a lot rougher, but they are handled roughly by the Asian people that handle them. The difference is marked, markedly different, but that’s mostly what you worked with, what you have. But keep plenty of males and females of either species, but not both. Their feet.

03:43:30 - 03:43:40

You were always saying that feet need good care, feet. Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yes, and so you have to be able to treat their feet. Yes.

03:43:43 - 03:43:47

What would you say is a proud accomplishment of yours in the profession?

03:43:47 - 03:43:50

What are you proud about in the profession that you’ve done?

03:44:03 - 03:44:19

I’m not that proud. I’m proud of some of the animals I handle, and I think they would be proud to have me say so.

03:44:22 - 03:44:23

Any in particular?

03:44:28 - 03:45:08

(Frank chuckles) He’s gonna tear up. I’ll say something here. When he started his import business, whether it be birds or mammals, he and I and our oldest daughter helped a lot through some of those years. She was wonderful with birds. But any shipment we got, we felt a failure if we lost anything. We worked and strived to get them healthy. We never sent an animal out that wasn’t in good shape when it left here, and that’s to his credit that we seldom lost an animal.

03:45:09 - 03:45:16

That’s what we strived for. (sniffles) And Frank, how would you like to be remembered?

03:45:19 - 03:45:34

(Frank and Connie laughing) Nobody’s perfect. (Frank and Connie laughing) That’s what he used to always say to me. That’s a, that’s a- Nobody’s perfect. (chuckling) That’s a good memory.

About Frank M. Thompson

Frank M. Thompson
In Memoriam
Jul 15, 1928 - Feb 25, 2016
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Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Florida


Frank Thompson was indeed a man of many talents. In his career he was a circus musician, animal dealer, animal trainer and staff member of both private and public zoos.

Working at Fort Worth Zoo,  Mesker Park Zoo, and Jacksonville Zoo he honed his skill as an animal man and administrator.  His position as an animal broker also gave him a perspective about zoos and the practice of acquiring fauna.

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The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Zoo & Aquarium Video Archive or those acting under their authority.