Monroe Morning World (Newspaper) - December 29, 1963, Monroe, Louisiana
A fondness for animals and dislike for regimentation have led the director of the Monroe Zoo to many jungle areas in search of live game. Here is the story of Kit Beecher.
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By MARY ANNE CORPIN Staff Writer
Monroe, La., Dec. 29, 1963 — 1-lJ Editorials Spotlight Sports
Three hours in a 12 by 12 foot pit, with 1200 ralllesnakes crawling around your jliviv: bare feet. Nightmare material? Not the Beecher looks at it. He put on J?;, a show in the pit during a “rattle.snake f?.- round-up” in Oklahoma.
I ^ “Since a snake is incapable of determ-I ^/iing if you are a person except when you move or hurt him, he’s not going to bite you if you leave him alone,” explains Beecher, Monroe’s Zoo director.
"The difference between wild and tame animals is that the tame ones aren’t afraid of people.”
As he spoke, he petted the zoo’s 16-month old tame tiger, “Shasta.”
“People ask me, ‘How long can you keep a tiger tame. When will it revert?’ This doesn’t happen. Shasta is genuinely fond of people — but he has the tiger instincts of self-preservation.”
The big cat purred.
“If he becomes friuhtened,” Beecher continued, “any per.son involved with him at the time can get hurt. Shasta ha.sn’t had many experiences, and will frighten easier than you or I. He's a powerful animal, but he won’t do what a best friend might do, and stab you in tho back. It won’t be that type of action.”
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Beecher has had a few run-ins with animals and reptiles: he's been bitten by lions, monkeys and a leopard, plus four poisonous snakes and was attacked by a wounded jaguar while filming a movie in C’olumbia, South America.
“I've never had an animal attack me, in the true sense of the word,” he says. “The only time I’ve ever been hurt by an animal was when I was the aggressor.
“To me, animals are far more humane than people. They are more ‘live and let live.’ This is mainly a lack of Intelligence. They do not possess a mind capable of tho\ight like we have.”
In the 1.3 years since he quit college to go to work for Ross Allen at the famed snake and animal exhibit in Silver Springs, Florida, animals have been the focal point of Beecher’s existence.
His travels with Arthur .Jones have taken him to Central America, Mexico, Columbia, Peru, India, Asia and Kenya and Tanganyika in Africa, collecting animals for the Reptile Jungle in Slidell, for sale by Jones’ Import Division, "Wild Animals Inc.” and for use in Wild Cargo television films and motion pictures.
Beecher grew up on college campu.ses. His father, dean of fine arts at the University of Southern Florida, “was disappointed when I dropped out of college.
“I did not feel that college would equip me for the kind of life I wanted to live. I really enjoy school talks and discussions, and taking groups from schools through the zoo — it's the reason for my existence.
“But I never wanted the regimentation of the teaching profession. This life I have lived during the past 13 years has been very satisfying.”
Beecher's fondness for animals landed him in the New Orleans jail once. He describes the whole thing as “a rather amusing incident.”
Ho was playing with his pet lion at a friend’s house in Algiers, and accidentally sliced his finger on one of the cat’s teeth.
Beecher had an appointment at Diamond Jim Moran’s restaurant in downtown New Orleans, to work out details for using the lion “Charlie” in an advertisement to promote the slogan “Food Fit for Kings.”
He caught the ferry, landed in New Orleans covered with blood, and headed for the bus station to clean up. The shower doors were locked.
“I went looking for the attendant. Two police officers in the lobby saw me.
“When they asked how I had gotten the blood all over me. I explained that my lion had bitten me. They didn't believe me. They thought I must have killed somebody.”
He was booked as a vagrant. Bond was set at $25. He had $23 on him. But his work with Motion Picture Agency had
brought him in contact with two police captains and a judge. A phone call got him out of the calaboose.
The ad? It fell through. The Health Department frowned on taking a lion into a restaurant for a picture.
Fame and fortune once again brushed close to Beecher and Charlie. Beecher was in Hollywood rounding out negotiations for a 39-week 1r-levision series starring Charlie as a tame lion, when the pet was shot by a group of enraged New Orleans parents who mistook him for another lion which had bitten a young boy.
Beecher’s run-ins with snakes include the time he was transporting a load of reptiles from Florida to the New York Serpentarium in the Adirondack Mountains.
Ho pulled off the highway for a nap, rolled over onto the bag of snakes and a cottonmouth bit him on the back of the hand.
“The after cffects of poison are like a hot iron or a dozen bee stings.” he explains. “I cut it open, put suction bulbs on it, kept this up for an hour and saw that the swelling hadn't progressed beyond my wrist.
“I was due in New York at a certain time, so I just kept on driving.”
Beecher disapproves of movies and stories which make the animal the vll-lian. “People too often give all snakes and animals ‘human qualities’ such as viciousness or vindictiveness, that these animals do not have.
“.'\nimals attack man in the wild if they are starving. In ordinary conditions they are terrified of man, and run away from you.”
With his wife, Mildred, and their two younpsters. he has raised baby monkeys, beavers, wildcats, lions, jaguars, ocelots, and squirrels on bottles in their home.
“To me. the most interesting experience is observation of people going through the zoo. making faces at monkeys — people when they are unaware that other people are watching them.”
Bernstein Park Zoo currently is known as the nicest little zoo in the country for a town this size. "No other city of 60,000 population in the United States has a zoo anywhere near as outstanding as this one,” he comments.
Beecher credits the Monroe City Council with the zoo's development. “Mayor W. L. Howard, and Commissioners H. W. McSherry and W. D. H. Rodriguez have seen the need for this type of thing and are responsible for it.
“The development is all theirs. My job here is just handling the details for what they wanted to do.”
Currently the zoo has some 600 animals representing 125 different species. A master plan compiled by the Ouachita—Monroe Planning Commission foresees using all available land to provide viewing of the animals on a scientific basis.
Still in the planning stage: a contact zoo, where children w'ould have the opportunity to touch and feed baby animals; an increase in the educational-type services; a small amphitheater and a series of programs in cooperation with Monroe’s recreation centers.
Recent developments at the Zoo include the Elephant House, reptile, ape and birH' house, the tiger house built by the Optimist club, new pens and a rebuilt work area.
“I think.” says Beecher, "that when the Optimist Club built the monkey island castle, the City Council realized they had something down here that people were interested in, both individually and organization-wise.
"The zoo is like anything else. It either grows and improves, or it deteriorates. We have a fairly ambitious plan to provide an attractive, feasible zoo. It can be built in a series of steps as the needs show themselves,
“The zoo will grow with public interest.”
“I’LL BE GLAD when he gets to weigh 300 pounds and outgrows that playfulness,” says Director Kit Beecher, after a bout with halfgrown lion Cheepa. The lion was raised on a bottle, like the roly-poly cub shown with Beecher on the stairs of the snake house. At monkey island castle, overly-friendly monkeys swarmed over him. In another building, sulphur-crested cockatoo from Australia and Maluccan cockatoo perched on his hands and squawked out a few words. These staff photos are by Ben Bradford. Photo taken at Slidell shows Beecher covered with snakes. In Hollywood, actress Ann Blythe admires peacock held by Beecher for scene from “Kismet.”