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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Yesterday's Crimes: Killer Elephants, Poisoned Orangutans, and the Curse of SF Zoo

Posted By on Thu, Sep 17, 2015 at 10:02 AM

click to enlarge RANDY HEINITZ/FLICKR
  • Randy Heinitz/Flickr

When banker and philanthropist Herbert Fleishhacker found 30 acres near the southwestern coast of San Francisco, he thought it was the perfect place for the zoo he’d been dreaming about.

But you have to wonder if the San Francisco Zoo was built on an ancient Indian burial ground. Mysterious tragedies proliferated. The place seemed snake-bitten from the start.

Fleishhacker wanted to expand his zoo from a couple of sad grizzlies in cages to a world-class menagerie, so he hired George Bistany, a big game hunter and animal expert he met on a cruise in 1929. Born in Egypt, Bistany made a harrowing career out of capturing wild animals for zoos and "escaping death in a score of tight situations in the jungles and mountains of four continents," according to the Fresno Bee.

Bistany also believed there was a psychic bond between humans and apes.

"Monkeys have a well-developed communication system," he told the Santa Ana Register. "In the tailless varieties, it is both spoken and telepathic."

"What is more, I can understand them and talk with many," Bistany added.

Bistany’s far-out ideas were lent credence after one of his orangutans saved his life. When Bistany leapt into a cage to separate a pair of brawling apes, an orangutan named Michael savagely mauled his arms and legs. Just when it looked like Bistany was done for, another 200-pound orangutan, named Ginger, gave Michael a drubbing, thus allowing Bistany to escape with his life.

The first of the zoo’s lethal tragedies struck in December 1935, when a visitor fed Ginger a piece of poisoned candy, causing an agonized death for the beloved ape. Compounding the sorrow, Bistany’s assistant zookeeper, Jack Bamberger, dropped dead from shock two days later.

After the two deaths, Bistany himself collapsed at his desk from soaring blood pressure brought on by stress. He was treated and released by UCSF but died on Jan. 1, 1936 — just 45 years old.

The death toll continued to mount when Mickey Borneo, another of Bistany’s prized orangutans, moped in his cage until succumbing to apparently insurmountable grief.

Although the poisoner who started what the San Jose News deemed the “death chain” was never caught, Bistany had harsh words for him before his own death.

"The killer of Ginger is a murderer just as if he had killed a human being," Bistany told the Santa Rosa Republican. "If I could get my hands on him, I'd throw him in the cage with the lions."

Four higher primates dead in the space of four weeks, and that still wasn’t the end of it.

Later in 1936, Wally the elephant impaled zookeeper Ed Brown on one of his tusks before hurling Brown’s lifeless body to the ground. In 1940, Big Bill the polar bear killed his mate in front of horrified onlookers. And more recently, Tatiana the tiger went on a deadly Christmas day rampage in 2007, and Kabibe the baby gorilla was crushed by a door last year.

So was the ground cursed or what? Maybe the apes can tell us. 

"Yesterday's Crimes" revisits strange, lurid, eerie, and often forgotten crimes from San Francisco's past. 

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Bob Calhoun

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