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In 1940, war came to America’s shores, on Woodland Park Zoo’s Monkey Island

Woodland Park Zoo
Monkey Island, in 1940.

This story originally aired on February 17, 2018.

Prior to the summer of 1940, Woodland Park Zoo’s monkeys lived isolated in cages in the Monkey House. Then the zoo decided to do something progressive: relocate the monkeys to a more “natural” setting, on a human-made island in the middle of a shallow moat. What followed was a war for dominance that captivated Seattle for weeks.


The daily newspapers, keen for some comic relief amid the grim news out of war-torn Europe, offered breathless coverage of the Monkey War.


“The greatest sea battle of the War of Monkey Island was fought at sunset today with the result that the Mad Monk of China, Tinga-ling-sing, was badly defeated and exiled to that dismal Saint Helena of Woodland Park - the monkey house,” wrote Seattle the Post Intelligencer on August 18, 1940.


“Members of the lightweight contingent on Woodland Park’s Monkey Island -- such small fry as Busy Bee, Little Potato and Adam the Stool Pigeon -- were a harried group today as a result of the violence visited upon them by the island’s new ruler, Sailor Nebuchadnezzar. These smaller monkeys had had a field day under the unstable reign of Yuko, whose government of a week ended when a minority bloc tossed Yuko in the moat Saturday night,” declared the Seattle Times on August 26.


The turmoil on Monkey Island drew spectators to the zoo and devoted readers to the papers for weeks, until, come Fall, the public’s attention was drawn to the actual escalating war unfolding overseas.


Click “Listen” above to hear excerpts from the newspaper coverage.


Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.