WILD NIGHTS: GHOST HUNTING CHICAGO’S LINCOLN PARK ZOO (PART 2): THE PRIMATE HOUSE
My first exposure to primates as a child was at the old “Children’s Zoo” at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo: a building next to the Sea Lion pool which focused on education for young children, where my dad would take me as part of our regular “rounds” about the city.
At the Children’s Zoo we could watch baby chimps being bottle fed, learn about the varying plumage of birds, and even hold a snake or two. My dad, always the troublemaker, would horrify me by taking off his stocking hat and holding it through the bars of one of the walk-in cages where an active little white headed capuchin was housed. Invariably, the little guy would grab Dad’s hat, and a keeper would eventually have to go in and coax it back.
Little did I know while I watched that tiny creature pulling on my dad’s cap that Lincoln Park Zoo was one of the most important centers for primate research in the world. Named for a former Zoo director and world renowned ape researcher, today the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes brings together researchers and organizations from around the world.
Dr. Lester Fisher is a familiar name to native Chicagoans born between 1960 and 1975, as the good doctor was a popular fixture on WGN’s beloved Ray Rayner Show: a morning news show for kids which featured news, weather and sports, comedy and musical sketches, arts and crafts and more. Animals were an important part of the show. Children looked forward to the weekly visits from Chelveston, a white duck who lived at the Animal Kingdom pet shop on Milwaukee Avenue, as Rayner fed the duck and chased him around the studio, trying to get him to jump into a basin of water, which usually ended up with Rayner being much wetter than Chelveston.
Dr, Lester Fisher (photo lpzoo)
Rayner also took occasional “field trips” to Lincoln Park Zoo, in a wonderful segment called The Ark in the Park.
During the segments the host would visit with Dr. Fisher, who would introduce viewers to one of the thousdands of breeds housed at the Zoo and talk about their habitats.
The Regenstein Center houses the finest collection of endangered apes in the world. Before it was built, the Zoo’s apes were housed in the modern Great Ape House (completed in 1976), which today is office and meeting space, topped by an enchanting carousel featuring endangered species rather than horses. Previous to the erection of that facility, the great apes made the old primate house their home, which is today called the Helen Brach Primate House. This structure was one of the original Zoo buildings but was remodeled in the 1990s to remove the cells and bars and recreate, instead, a two-story faux “jungle” of trees and water, fronted by thick glass and enhanced by an outdoor habitat for the warmer months. The Primate House today is home to monkeys, lemurs, gibbons and tamarins who mesmerize guests for hours with their antics. Perhaps my dad’s capuchin is still there, in old age, waiting for the tall guy with the hat to come back. Perhaps not.
Until the opening of the Great Ape House in 1976, Dr. Fisher’s office was housed in the Primate House as well. You can still see the door to it, on the left as you enter the beautiful arched entryway to the historic structure.
A young Winifred Hope with baby
Bushman, 1930. (lpzoo photo).
Though he was a famous and much-loved fixture at the Zoo, Dr. Fisher’s popularity was eclipsed by another familiar of the Primate House: the world-renowned great ape known as Bushman, one of the most famous animals ever held in captivity. Often featured in newsreels, Bushman had been the pet of a Cameroon minister’s daughter before being sold to the Zoo in 1930 for $3,500, or about $50,000 today.
The cuddly creature she’d called “my sweet little boy” as a child grew into a 550 pound hulk who drew millions of visitors during his tenure at Lincoln Park Zoo. His massive girth was a shuddering thing to behold. As one reporter observed, Bushman appeared “like a nightmare that escaped from darkness into daylight who has exchanged its insubstantial form for 550 pounds of solid flesh. His face is one that might be expected to gloat through the troubled dreams that follow overindulgence. His hand is the kind of thing a sleeper sees reaching for him just before he wakes up screaming.”
Bushman: The “Lord of Lincoln Park.” (lpzoo photo)
But Bushman’s real appeal lay not in his ability to terrify, but to charm. Visitors stood for hours watching his antics, which included throwing food and dung at patrons with razor sharp precision. In the fall of 1950 Bushman escaped from his cage, meandering through the primate house for hours until a garter snake scared the giant back to his enclosure.
Earlier that year, an illness which threatened death had caused more than 100,000 visitors to pay their last respects. Bushman survived–briefly–and passed away the next winter, on New Year’s Day 1951. His empty cage became a point of pilgrimage for weeks after his death. His enormous frame was preserved by taxidermy and put on permanent display at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. In 2013, Winifred Hope, the girl who had loved Bushman like a baby brother during his earliest days in West Africa, visited the specimen in the spring of 2013 at the age of 92.
The emotional and important history of the Primate House made it a definite “to do” on our list of locations to investigate at Lincoln Park Zoo. I especially wanted to see if we could pick up any residual voices in Dr. Fisher’s erstwhile office.
Bushman’s specimen at the Field Museum of Natural History today.
Dr. Fisher, of this writing, is very much alive; however, often we find that when someone is passionately tied to a location for many years, their voice, their smell, and even their physical form can leave a lasting impression which can sometimes be picked up by future generations. With his intense connection to the Zoo and to primate research here, would we find that Dr. Fisher, upon retirement, had left part of himself behind?
That first night we set up a laptop computer to record for EVP in Fisher’s old office space. We left the laptop inside, closing the door and going on to investigate elsewhere. Since we were not trying to communicate with an intelligent entity but simply pick up residual sounds, there was no need for us to remain and ask questions, which is the usual method of collecting EVP from discarnate entities.
Disappointingly we did not pick up any voices from Fisher’s office, but we did find that the laptop had mysteriously ended the recording and started two successive ones–a truly impossible feat with no one in the locked room to stop and start the recording button.
While the recording was going on, we went on to the larger Primate House to investigate. With us was Colleen Nadas, a medium who picked up numerous entities in the building, most of them the energies of children. Fascinatingly, several years later Dave Olson and his group, Chicago Paranormal Investigators, recorded what sounded like a little girl saying, “I want to go to the Lincoln Zoo.” During the same investigation, Olson’s group was able to record, with a thermal camera, anomalous moving forms along the floor of the corridor.
That same night, I had been recording hear the interior part of the entrance and went out into the vestibule to listen to the recording, hoping I’d picked something up. After a few minutes I shut off my laptop because I heard, coming from inside the building, a high pitched screaming which sounded like one of the lemurs shrieking at the top of its lungs. I had several teams with me that night as my guests and thought one of the members was agitating the animals. After several minutes of this relentless screaming, I went to tell the culprit to stop annoying the creature so we wouldn’t be asked to leave. As soon as I opened the interior door, the shrieking stopped. To my amazement, I found upon inquiring of the various investigators that not one person had heard the hair curling sounds or picked them up on their recording devices.
Later that evening, I sat on the floor against the wall, recording with my laptop and softly asking questions of any entities which might be present. Asking, “How many are here?” I received the answer, “Many. Like meeeeeee…..” (Hear it here) And, “We’re all here.” (Hear it here) I then asked, “Are you an animal or a keeper?” In response, a male voice with an Australian accent responded, “Who cares?” (Hear it here.) When I asked if there were any animals or humans from another country, a voice responded, “I’ve been so many places.” (Hear it here.) This particular clip is an example of an entity using an investigator’s voice to create words, as this voice sounds like mine, but of course with the unnatural rhythm so common to EVP. Very interestingly, another voice mentioned Julie, the events manager who was with us that night. We had all been very, very busy that spring but Julie was eager to set up another investigation so that we could add more material to the Zoo ghost tour that fall. Thanks to her efforts, we finally got everyone together on schedule to come out for an investigation. The entities in the Primate House evidently knew it had been hard to coordinate, because when I asked, “Are you glad we are here?” A voice says, “I love it. Julie caught you.” (Hear it here)
Of course, in all of the locations investigated, there was the possibility that entities were attached to the bodies who had been interred at the City Cemetery which formerly stood here. During one investigation, Dave Olson and the Chicago Paranormal Investigators asked, “Are you part of the cemetery that was here?” A male voice answered, “Yes, I was.” The team also picked up another, higher, possibly child’s voice, which says, “He’s talking over us.” You can watch the clip from the investigation and hear the EVPs by clicking the video below.
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Ghost Hunting Lincoln Park Zoo (Part 3): The Suicide Bridge.