MAIL-ORDER FRIENDS: THE COMIC BOOK SQUIRREL MONKEYS
In the beginning, we comic book aficionados came upon these four-colored wonders looking for something that tickled our imagination for our pocket full of coins. Little did we know that besides the power-packed stories there would be these wonderful advertisements for all sorts of fascinating, eccentric goodies. Whatever a naive kid might conjure in his wild imagination could be had for a price in the pages of a comic book: awesome magic tricks, increased musculature, powerful intellect, slam dunk basketballs and even a dose of self-confidence. Now if all these of products worked, one could conceivably become a real-life superhero and a hit with the ladies. From the Golden Age to the Eighties, many small novelty companies realized that they could specifically reach youngsters, their target market, through small, cheap ads in comic pamphlets. Thus comic books became common ground for people searching for the sensational and those wanting to sell it to them. In some ways, the entertaining comic ads brought back to life the feel of the classic advertisements featuring snake oil medicine, over-the-top novelties and magic lucky bracelets.
For a dollar bill, the Plant World Company would sell you the bulbs, growing soil, and instructions to plant your very own eerie army of vicious Venus Fly Traps! For a fist full of dollars, you could wow your classmates with over a million dollars worth of vintage gold bank notes from The Fun House ad! For a few dollars more, you could serenade the neighborhood girls by learning to play the guitar in a mere seven days! Beat the crap out of your bullies with nunchaku sticks for $7.95! And if you needed to make some extra change to buy all this goodness, there was usually a want ad calling for good boys and girls to sell “Grit” newspapers to their parents, their relatives, their friends’ parents and every person in the white pages of the telephone book. Back in the day, all the answers to life’s problems were in the pages of a comic book.
In the era before the rise of mainstream internet and the invasion of proper trade collections, true comic readers had to buy vintage back issues to read the classics and complete their title runs. The old comics were like time capsules full of nifty artifacts that a prior generation could’ve purchased. For myself, the most eye-catching ads were the ones selling live animals to kids: chameleons, baby raccoons, mice and other little critters. These were far more fascinating than your average Mexican jumping beans, ant farms and the infamous Sea Monkeys. But of all the animals that were ever sold in comics, if one were to be the ultimate purchase, it had to be the imported squirrel monkey, a native of South America and parts of Central America.
If you look closely at the ads in Marvel comics and Warren magazines during the late Sixties/early Seventies, you can easily spot the ones marketing the primates. Most of these advertisements were selling them for less than twenty dollars, plus the undisclosed fee for delivery. So for a reasonable amount of money, you could’ve roamed the neighborhood like Tarzan with your own personal Cheeta. Had I been of age (or even alive), I would have purchased a squad of monkeys to be my loyal helpers in searching for the television remote, fetching cold sodas, brushing my teeth, writing my homework, and performing my altar boy duties. Realistically, one can only imagine the face of outraged parents across the country when their children unexpectedly ordered these bundles of “joy” and “hilarity.”
One of the best places to order squirrel monkeys was in the back pages of Warren magazines via James Warren’s Captain Company, a business that the comics publisher used to sell novelty products. For a few years in early Seventies, Florence Steinberg managed Captain Company — “Fabulous Flo” was Stan Lee’s infamous gal Friday in the heyday of Sixties’ Marvel. Steinberg told POP!, “As I recall, I know we got a certain amount of money in the office, and then we would send a notice to the monkey people with payment, whatever they charged, and then they would take care of shipping it.”
You’d think that with Warren’s presold audience that the drop-ship monkeys would have been a hit, but Steinberg elaborated that they weren’t exactly a top seller. As one could also imagine, the little animals weren’t a smash with parents. “I do remember people with complaints because these monkeys were not housebroken,” Steinberg said. “You know, they’re animals for goodness sakes, and people barely know how to take care of the dogs and cats. So I think people returned them, not to our office, but to wherever they came from.”
Once I decided to write this article, I searched high and low for someone who might have purchased a squirrel monkey directly from one of the old comic ads. Luckily I stumbled upon writer Jeff Tuthill’s amazing childhood account on the time he ordered his pet monkey from an issue of “Amazing Spider-Man” near the early seventies. The native New Yorker remembered being captivated by the picture of a complacent monkey seated on the palm of a human hand.
Tuthill told POP!, “I know it wasn’t over $25 bucks because I wouldn’t have bought it if it was. I remember I saved up the money to buy it, and I had it delivered to a friend’s house that lived around the block from me. He called me up when it was delivered, and there was actually postage due upon delivery, which I expected. It was less than ten bucks. I was 15 years old. When he called, I rode over on my bike. It came in this little cardboard box. I mean, I’m saying small. It was probably the size of a shoebox, except it was higher. It had a little chicken wire screen window in it. There was a cut out. All you could see if you looked in there was his face. I brought it home, and I actually snuck it into the basement of the house. We had a basement entrance door, a regular opening door that opened onto the stairs going to the basement, and I snuck it down. I remember distinctly my father had his brother and his wife over, and they were entertaining upstairs. And I snuck it in, and my friend came along, because he was curious to see what this thing looked like. Now, the basement in my parents’ house was separated by, half of it was finished off, and the other half — ‘finished off’ being paneled walls and a drop ceiling — and the other half, where the furnace was, was untouched, basically, so you had all the plumbing up above on the ceiling. Now, when I was a kid, I had a menagerie of animals. That’s why I actually had Dutch toy rabbits and gerbils and all that stuff. I had the rabbit down in the basement, so I brought the monkey down to the basement and I put him into a cage, a rabbit hutch, basically, that opened from the top. I put the whole box inside the cage and then opened the box up. He jumped out. Now, instead of having a collar, because you’d strangle it, it had a belt. It basically had a collar around its waist.”
Tuthill continued, “No instructions [were included]. He had this waist belt on, a collar, if you will, on his waist, with an unattached leash inside the box. So I opened the box up inside the cage, the monkey jumped out, I withdrew the box and found the leash. I have no idea where it came from; I assumed it came from Florida. I figured, well, it’s probably near dehydration, so I opened up the cage to put some water in it. It leapt out of the cage when I opened it up the second time! I mean, it was eyeing the pipes that I was unaware of. As soon as I opened the cage, it leapt up and grabbed onto the plumbing up on the ceiling and started using them like monkey bars, and he was just shooting along in the basement, chirping pretty loud. It was heading towards the finished side of the basement, where there was a drop ceiling, and if it got into those channels, I never would have got it. It would have been days to get this thing out of there. I grabbed it by its tail, and it came down on, starting literally up by my shoulder, like a drill press it landed on my arm, and every bite was breaking flesh. It was literally like an unsewing machine. It was literally unsewing my arm coming down, and I was pouring blood. I grabbed it by its neck with both my wrists, threw it back in the cage. It’s screaming like a scalded cat. I’m pouring blood. My friend’s laughing uncontrollably, and my father finally comes in the basement door and goes, ‘Jeffery! What are you doing to that rabbit?’ And I go, ‘It’s not a rabbit, it’s a monkey, and it just bit the hell out of me.’ ‘A monkey? Bring it up here!’ I’m pouring, I wrapped a t-shirt around my arm to stave off the bleeding, carried the cage upstairs, and I don’t know why I bothered sneaking it in, because they fell in love with it, and it was like, there was no problem at all. They took me to the emergency room and I got 28 stitches on my arm.” The young comic reader learned the hard way to never grab a monkey by the tail.
Instead of developing any animosity against the monkey, the animal enthusiast Tuthill grew to embrace his new pet by reading up on the breed and teaching it, even though it took two months just to have him stop biting him. The monkey was named Chipper. Quickly Jeff learned that his monkey didn’t like bananas, but preferred eating peanuts and seedless white grapes. The boy also devoted an entire summer to training the primate to stay in the backyard in his Long Island home, where the small ape enjoyed swinging from the maple trees, hunting birds and rounding up insects into the night. If the pet ever drifted off from the backyard, it could be pried back with some food and a crab net. For young Jeff, the worst case scenario were if the primate wandered off the property and found some intermingling branches, because “it could go from tree to tree, and it could even leap from one branch in one tree to another branch in another tree, as long as it wasn’t too far apart.”
Tuthill said, “One of the reasons I trained it to fend for itself outside is because they’re very prone to getting rickets because their protein intake is so high. If they can’t get insects on their own, then you have to feed them mealworms. I remember when I was a kid there were some pet stores in department stores that sold mealworms. But then those were hit and miss. And I was doing mail-order mealworms. It was ridiculous. So I trained the animal to stay out on its own. That’s why I trained it to stay outside, so it could get its own protein.”
For all the trouble that this monkey may have been, it was a very affectionate animal towards Jeff and his family. Occasionally, the foot-tall pet would let himself out of the cage at night, and nuzzle up beside his owner in the middle of the night. It was also capable of riding on the back of the family’s Sheltie collie like a horse. Although the dog didn’t enjoy it, he learned to deal with Chipper. In time, the monkey became like a sidekick to his teenage owner, traveling with him in outdoor activities. Having trained him to stay on command, Jeff could even take him on his leash when he was hanging out with his friends. The majority of the time, Chipper seemingly enjoyed just climbing on the shoulders of the lad.
After the monkey intimidated a local veterinarian, Jeff ended up taking his pet to the Bronx Zoo for check-ups and treatments. At the zoo there were specialized cages that would allow a zoo veterinarian to inspect or inject the simian without any incident. This was a pet that embraced being free. It didn’t particularly enjoy being corned or enclosed. It was also an animal that didn’t enjoy having jumpy or agitated people around it since those types of actions would make it feel threatened.
Tuthill acquainted, “Training it to stay outside was really neat, and what was amazing to me was, there are high voltage wires going across, so he would actually crisscross. Some mornings, I’m not kidding, I’d find him in trees on the opposite side of the street from my house. So I don’t know how the heck he got over there. I assume crossing the wires, like I’ve seen squirrels doing, but how he didn’t get electrocuted is beyond me. I can understand the urge of being able to just keep going from branch to branch to branch. I mean, if you try and think like a monkey for a minute. I could understand him wanting to just endlessly go. But, yeah, it was such a relief to be able to do that, when I knew I couldn’t take the monkey with me, I’d let him out and know he’d be there when I came home.”
Sadly, this squirrel monkey didn’t live past the summer of his fifth year as a pet. About Chipper’s last day, Jeff recalled, “I came home one afternoon. It was just around summer, I was 18 years old, and I came home. It was actually the summer before I went to college, and I came home and brought the monkey in, and it came onto the porch when I called it. Its chest was swollen up like a balloon, and the only thing I could think of was that it ate a wasp, and didn’t bother chewing it up, and got stung internally. I mean, I wasn’t sure. That was what I assumed, because I had no other reasoning why its chest would be swollen out like that. I was calling the Bronx Zoo vet to get an appointment, and before I could finish with the phone call, it died.”
Nevertheless, Jeff did not let the death of his beloved monkey get him completely down, as his sister would soon buy him a replacement. The second monkey would be a Capuchin monkey, which are the infamous organ grinder monkey breed and a bit bigger than the squirrel monkeys. But no matter what happened afterwards, the bond between Jeff and his first monkey were not replaced with the rich boyhood memories and hard work that went into caring for the animal.
Recalling a final blissful memory, Jeff chimed, “One time he actually got loose, and I was freaking out because we were in the middle of the woods, miles from anywhere. And he was actually playing with his reflection in a stream, sitting on the high rock. I was with a half a dozen of my friends. We were all literally running through the woods, calling him. And one of my friends found him down by the stream that we were camping near, and he was on a high rock, and every once in a while he’d go down to the water and slap it, and then run back up. I was so happy that I’d found him.”
Another kind soul that wanted to share his pet squirrel monkey story was Joe Schwind. Although he didn’t obtain his monkey named Stanley from the pages of a comic book, he, too, had a rich experience having one as a pet. Schwind recalled, “I was going to school at the Kansas City Art Institute, living in an apartment, a second-floor apartment, with another guy from the Ozarks. I don’t know how we heard about this, but a guy had this monkey living in a birdcage, and the birdcage was just a small cage, the kind you have a parakeet in. And the bars of the cage were encrusted with monkey shit. It was a terrible situation. So we took this monkey and he lived with us. We let him out of the cage, and he just had free roam of the apartment.”
In 1969, it’s entirely possible that the monkey’s previous owner obtained him from one of the comic book ads. The one certain thing was that the experience of owning and caring for the little primate was more than he could handle. With Schwind and his college roommate, the monkey was now free from the birdcage and allowed to roam around their apartment. For all parties involved, it took some work to adjust their new living arrangement. The two roommates had never owned a monkey, and the freed Stanley was very jumpy around them. It also didn’t help that the primate had a habit of lurking around his owners while they slept. It would take time and a little elbow grease for all of them to bond. In time, they earned his trust as he would learn to rest on their shoulders.
Schwind said, “He became more social over time, but at first he was only fearful and aggressive. But he became more social. He would sleep curled up in a ball on the top of a bookshelf, probably seven feet in the air. He’d sleep up there, but during the night he would come down and curl up on my neck. And then, when I’d wake up in the morning, I had to just kind of move around slowly so he’d realize I was waking up, and he’d leave.”
Stanley was about fourteen inches tall, but appeared shorter because he was usually crouched. It became harder for the roommates to invite people over to their pad since the monkey was distrustful towards strangers. Like Tuthill’s pet, Schwind’s didn’t care for bananas, but enjoyed munching on rice with beans or rice with different vegetables, and grasshoppers and the occasional tiny lizards. They also built him a big five-foot-tall cage for the occasional scenario when they couldn’t control Stanley or had guests over.
Schwind remembered that one of the things that really bugged Stanley the most was the sight of redheads. Schwind said, “I don’t even know what kind of vision these creatures have, but I got the impression he didn’t like redheads. He’d just continually screech at them. Well, imagine you’re sitting on the couch, and this rope is running parallel to the ground, and over the couch but about three feet away. And he’s running back and forth on this rope screeching at the person sitting on the couch, and then he’ll start swinging onto the rope by hanging on with his back legs and reaching out toward the person, baring his teeth.”
The boys did their best to make Stanley feel comfortable. Schwind recalled, “We had ropes strung just about a foot from the ceiling, through the living room, and then into the next room, and then in each room there was a rope hanging down from the rope, and then the rope also went into the kitchen, to the first set of shelves in the kitchen. So he transported himself mostly by rope. He was always where the action was in the house. He had a pretty good life just in that house. And then, in the Ozarks (with Schwind’s roommate), when he moved to a farm, he got to live outside for a lot of the year.”
It goes without saying that caring for these pets was a lot of work. Stanley required a lot of attention and was completely unpredictable with sudden mood swings. Parenthood was a walk in the park compared to owing a squirrel monkey. Schwind said, “This is a pet that is always making you aware of its presence. And he may be, like, picking up your car keys and moving them somewhere. You just don’t know what he might decide to do. It’s like having your crazy aunt running around, y’know?”
Nobody gave us a rulebook at all,” quipped Schwind. “We kind of followed him, actually, as stupid as that sounds. The only thing we imposed on him, and we realized early on we needed leather gloves, we’d give him a bath probably. . . we waited until he started to stink, and then he knew it was coming, because we’d put on the leather gloves and we’d have to chase him down.”
As time moved on, things changed as Schwind and his pet gradually parted paths. Schwind explained, “Stanley and I parted ways a few times in our lives because he mostly stayed with my roommate. So Stanley and I were separated for several years, and then my roommate and I got back together in Lawrence, Kansas, and Stanley came along and lived there. He lived in the house, and he also lived in a shed out back. The last I heard of Stanley he was 18. What I was told was that life expectancy in the wild was as long as 20 years. But, again, captivity it’s more like 15. So he was doing real well, and when we had him, he never saw a veterinarian. I don’t know if we could have even found a veterinarian that knew what to do with a monkey.”
For Schwind, there were no regrets about adopting Stanley. If anything, he learned from the experience of owning the squirrel monkey, and thanks to his rehabilitation and rescue, the primate lived a nice long life. Schwind expressed, “I guess we just felt responsible. His condition appeared so horrible, and then, when we took him on, we had a kind of responsibility. And he was a lot of trouble, but he was also extremely interesting. As weird as that sounds.”
Today, a lot of imported monkeys and non-human primates (NHP) are used for lab experiments. The department of Health and Human Services does not recommend exposure to imported NHP because of the potential infectious disease risks, which may include “emerging infectious diseases such as Ebola-Reston, B Virus (Cercopithecine herpesvirus 1), monkeypox, yellow fever, Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, tuberculosis, and other diseases not yet known or identified.” Since 1975, the importing of NHP as pets is not permitted in our country under any circumstances.
Despite all the warnings, there are over 15,000 monkeys that are pets, many of them endangered species. Long gone are also the days of buying twenty-dollar primates. In 2003, “National Geographic” placed the price range from $1,500 to $50,000. There are also no federal laws to police the buying and selling of these primates. Although they aren’t purchased at your local mall’s pet store, the people searching for them could buy one on-line or through other backdoor channels. Our governments have basically done very little to stop the traffic of monkeys.
On January 1, 2007, “The Lancet” (a British medical journal) reported the following, “More than 173,000 squirrel monkeys were imported into the USA between 1968 and 1972, most destined to become pets. More than 60% of squirrel monkeys are infected with SFV, so owners of New World primate pets may also be at risk of SFV infection.”
Were squirrel monkeys great pets? Perhaps. These animals were born to be free and move about through trees. For the most part, the imported pets only really paid attention to you when baited them with food. Most of all they required a ton of devotion and unconditional attention to be somewhat domesticated. Just talking to Tuthill and Schwind, you could really see that they worked hard to care for their squirrel monkeys. In this era where everyone is wired, it is a little harder to imagine many people giving so much time and love to these low-tech little creatures. It’s also kind of scary that these potential disease carriers were being sold to children not so very long ago. Makes you think, doesn’t it?