JARDINE: Readers flesh out memories of Modesto zoo

ModestoJuly 6, 2013 

— A couple of weeks ago, thanks to local historian Lorie Garcia, I wrote about the demolition of the last building associated with the old Ulrich Zoo in what is now the Roseburg Square Shopping Center.

Jack and Joy Ulrich debuted the zoo in 1962 in what was then the Ulrich Shopping Center — the "Big U" — on Roseburg Avenue. They exhibited a chimpanzee named Lulu, some monkeys, tropical birds, ravens, reptiles and other critters for about a decade until it closed.

My column appeared June 25, triggering numerous calls and emails, one from a former Modestan now living in Florida. Each bore a special memory, more about the animals than the place, and by sharing it they're helping update the zoo's history.

Roland Kuhn was the zoo's first manager and owned the pet shop in the center. Lulu, he said, was raised in a cage and never had set foot on solid ground. So the afternoon she arrived, she stayed in the covered sleeping area in the back of her cage.

"The next morning, she reached down and touched the concrete floor with her hand," Kuhn said. "We'd put some burlap bags in there for her, and she put them on the cement. She never stepped on the cement until she got acclimated."

Her previous owner told Kuhn he needed to rap her once in a while to remind her who was boss. One day, remembering the suggestion, he tapped her on the shoulder.

"She didn't like that at all," said Kuhn, who ran the zoo during its first two years. "She was going to bite me on the knee and then she reconsidered. I looked at her and said, 'OK, Lulu, you're the boss.' "

He also wanted to clarify from the June 25 column that when a macaque monkey was born at the zoo — a rare birth in captivity — the monkey named Burgi was the dad. Nikki was the mom. (Sorry about that!)

In 1963 or so, a state Department of Fish and Game official brought a 40-pound black bear cub to the zoo. They put the bear into a temporary cage while the permanent one was being built.

"I had to lift a gate on one end to feed it," Kuhn said. "One day, I did it and the cub got out. It headed right for the Save Mart, and there was a lady coming out with a bag of groceries in each arm."

Kuhn had a fishing net and collared the bear. But being a disabled war veteran with a bad hand, he simply didn't have the strength to hold it. Finally, a veterinarian who happened to be there reached down and grabbed the critter by the neck.

Back to Lulu. Emily Sistolero, who lived near the zoo, remembers an afternoon in the late 1960s when she heard a scratching at the door. Expecting it to be the girl who lived across the street coming to visit her daughter, she told the neighbor to let herself in.

A moment later, Sistolero's own daughter stood transfixed, eyes as big as dinner plates.

"I thought she'd lost her marbles," Sistolero said.

Then Sistolero saw what her daughter saw.

"There was a monkey in the corner with its fingers in its mouth," Sistolero said.

Lulu, the chimpanzee, had escaped from her enclosure. Kids who had been at the zoo — did they aid and abet in her escape? — chased her as she shuffled away down the street to Sistolero's home.

"The (chimp) flew by me and into the bedroom," Sistolero said.

Her husband had just arrived home from work. He grabbed a big cardboard box and a large towel, and with the zookeeper's help, tried to corral the chimp.

Neighbor Judy Coulson came over to see what all the commotion was about, and stuck her head inside the bedroom.

"The (chimp) whizzed by her," Sistolero said. "She ran home and got a banana."

By the time they captured Lulu, she'd torn up the bed cover, broke a framed picture on the wall and jumped up and down on the dresser.

"It was a comedy routine," Sistolero said. "That house smelled like a zoo. It was a hell of a commotion, in plain English."

The zoo also had a small black-and-white monkey named Tony. Modesto's Judy Carman knew Tony well.

"My sister (Mary) and I — he was like our brother," Carman said.

Their father, a World War II vet, got the monkey in Prairie Grove, Ark., in the 1960s. A woman who was down on her luck traded Tony for groceries. When the family drove west to Modesto, Tony rode shotgun, sort of.

"Dad would put his arm on the window and Tony rode all the way in that little nook of my dad's elbow," Carman said. "He had the wind in his face, and he couldn't have been happier."

The problem was that the monkey could be aggressive, Carman said. It liked to come after them, biting and scratching. One time, she said, they tried to take refuge in the bathroom, but Tony got in before they could close the door.

"I finally grabbed that monkey and threw him out of the room," she said. "He bit the daylights out of us."

The family's kittens bore the scars as well.

"He'd get them to come over to his cage and try to eat 'em," Carman said. "They had holes in their ears and he tried to chew off their tails. My parents just got too old and too tired to maintain him."

So they donated Tony to the Ulriches' zoo.

Dennis Gray lived just around the corner from the shopping center after moving to Modesto in 1964.

"I almost grew up visiting the zoo," said Gray, now in Florida.

After it closed, he adopted Joe, one of the ravens, and would love to know the bird's back story.

"Joe lived and thrived in my mom's back yard for at least 10 years," Gray said. "He would roam the back yard every day and, without training, would jump on a perch in a large wooden box placed behind our garage. We would close the door at night. Every morning, he would caw and peck the door until let out. This went on every day for his life. He was fed dry dog food and would peck on the back door to be fed. Our back door, which was natural wood, was visibly damaged by his assaults."

Wherever Joe had been before joining the zoo, he apparently took an ESL class.

"To me, the biggest mystery about Joe was his speech," Gray said. "Perhaps 10 times while we kept him, he would say in a deep, crystal-clear man's voice, 'Hello Sam!' I could never prompt him to repeat it. That's why I'd like to know about his past."

A small dog attacked and killed Joe one day in the early 1980s.

And finally, former zoo manager Kuhn helped found the Modesto Zoological Society in the 1960s. The group consisted of local businessmen and veterinarians. It aimed to create a larger, permanent zoo somewhere in the area. Some of the members wanted to build it on a piece of available land between Scenic Avenue and Dry Creek. Others wanted to purchase 15 acres and build an open, drive-through zoo near Patterson.

The society became extinct when members couldn't agree on a plan. The Ulrich Zoo closed in 1972, and we haven't had one since.

So that concludes Version 2.0 of Modesto zoo history, courtesy of readers with fond memories of our furry and fine feathered friends.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service