Written by John H. Meyer Friday, 18 September 2009 07:10
It all happened shortly after the building of the new Sunrise Highway and railroad trestle by the current Westfield Mall. My father was a carpenter and worked on the trestle construction. Back then the land where the mall now stands was thickly wooded, vacant and owned by a New York water company.
The buildings that housed the animals were constructed with plain concrete blocks and wood gabled roofs. There was a huge two-story Tudor style building close to the road that housed the reptiles and many of the 100,000 wild birds Buck brought back from his hunting expeditions. Souvenirs, refreshments, and his movie promotional posters along with large photographs of his travels were displayed in the full glass-windowed building. And in the center of the grounds Buck had a pit with a simulated mountain constructed for his many monkeys to play on that entertained the young and old visitors to his zoo. I remember what a treat it was when my Uncle Herman would take me to the zoo to see all the animals, usually after a holiday family dinner at my grandfather’s Hicksville Road farm.
While operating the zoo Frank Buck made his home at East 50th Street in New York City. However, he didn’t spend much of his time at either place. During his 25 years as a gatherer of live animals he traveled much of the world.
Buck was proud of his wildlife collection on display. Records verify that Buck collected 49 elephants, 60 tigers, 63 assorted leopards, 20 hyenas, 42 orangutans, 100 gibbon apes, over 5,000 monkeys of different varieties, 20 tapirs, 120 Asiatic antelopes and deer, nine pigmy water buffalos, one pair of seladang (or, as they are more popularly known, Malayan guar), five Babirusa, rarest of wild swine, two African cape buffalos, 18 African antelopes, two giraffes, 40 wild goats and sheep, 11 camels, 40 kangaroos and wallabies, five Indian rhinoceroses, 60 bears, 90 large pythons, 10 king cobras, over 100 small snakes, 25 giant monitor lizards, 15 crocodiles, more than 500 small mammals of different species, and more than 100,000 birds ranging all the way from the big ostrich-like cassowaries of the Panpan Islands down to Australian finches as small as humming birds.
In addition, Frank Buck authored seven books and numerous articles, and wrote, directed and appeared in five motion pictures. Buck was not only a man of courage but a man of many talents. His favorite among his books wasn’t Bring ‘Em Back Alive, but On Jungle Trails, a story textbook that was read in schools all over the United States.
While Buck operated his Massapequa zoo he also lectured and did his writing. He was heard on radio that broadened his popularity. It was said that Buck received as many as 125,000 fan letters a week.
In 1938, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus made Buck a lucrative offer to tour as their star attraction, and to enter the show astride an elephant. He refused to join the American Federation of Actors, stating that he was “a scientist, not an actor.” Though there was a threat of a strike if he did not join the union, he maintained that it would compromise his principles, saying, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m with the working man. I worked like a dog once myself. And my heart is with the fellow who works. But I don’t want some union delegate telling me when to get on or off an elephant.”
Eventually, the union gave Buck a special dispensation to introduce Gargantua the gorilla, without registering as an actor. There is a zoo in Gainesville, TX initially populated with retired circus animals named in Frank Buck’s honor.
On Aug. 22, 1934, Buck’s zoo made headlines when 150 of his monkeys escaped. By the following day with the help from members of the fire department and Buck’s zookeepers, 39 had been recaptured. However, 111 still were at large. Old time Massapequa residents can recall the playful monkeys perched on the yard-arms of the zoo’s flagpoles cleverly watching zookeepers hoist up crates of bananas hoping that they would jump in to fetch the fruit. They say the keepers were lucky and caught a few in that fashion. On Aug. 24, 35 of them could be seen playing and strolling about local streets causing several near accidents and finally an actual fender bender and an editorial in The New York Times. By the last day of August all but four had been accounted for.
The Frank Buck Zoo finally closed – and in the very early 1950s, the land to the rear of the once famous zoo was developed for use as a drive-in movie theater and a much smaller petting zoo that attracted the kiddies was opened. Known as the Massapequa Petting Zoo, that too, has closed and only remains a part of local history for a few of us old-timers.