Jungle Jenny’s Flying Menagerie

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Claire and I were chatting one day when she casually mentioned that her husband Lionel had been the pilot for an historic KLM flight in May 1949. He flew the largest shipment of animals ever to travel by air. My jaw dropped as she mentioned some details of the flight.

“Jungle Jenny was on board and she had to wrangle tigers that escaped from their cages…”

I was so intrigued by the story that she lent me her scrapbook filled with news clippings so that I could take notes for what I thought would make an amazing children’s story. I wrote many versions of the story, but was never satisfied with any of them. I wish I could have done the story more justice, but in honor of Claire and Captain Metz, I am posting one of the versions here: 

metzThis is the true story of a brave and adventurous girl named Genevieve, Jenny for short. When Jenny was just a little girl, her mother died and she was sent to live with friends of the family. Arthur and Marie had lost their own little daughter, and gladly welcomed Jenny into their own home.

From the outside, their house looked like any other. But Jenny was startled to hear strange noises as she stepped out of the car to see her new home for the first time. The noises grew louder as Arthur and Marie led her through the house and into their huge backyard. It was a zoo!

Arthur was an animal collector. He traveled far and wide to find animals for zoos and circuses all over the world. The animals lived in his backyard until it was time to go to their new homes.

Jenny grew up with no brothers or sisters, and no other playmates but the animals. She loved the monkeys and the elephants best. She would dress the monkeys in clothes she made herself, drape the elephants with ribbons, and pretend she had her own circus.

Jenny was happy, but she longed for one thing. Jenny dreamed about seeing the faraway places from where the animals had come. Every time her father packed his bags to leave on one of his trips, she begged him to take her along. She wanted to be an animal collector one day, just like him.

Now Arthur was a kind man, but an old-fashioned one. “It wouldn’t be proper for a young girl to be an animal collector,” he told Jenny. “When you’re old enough, you’ll get married to a nice boy and settle down.”

When Jenny got older, she had many marriage proposals, but she wasn’t ready to get married and settle down. She kept pleading with her father to take her on one of his voyages.

One day, her father announced with a grin: “Pack your bags, Jenny! For your twenty-first birthday, I’m taking you with me to India and Africa. But only if you promise to settle down and get married when we get back home.”

Jenny was delighted! She was ready to promise anything for her chance to see the world.

Jenny had hardly ever left her little hometown in New Jersey. She was dazzled by the sights and sounds of India and Africa. But it was a difficult and dangerous trip. They arrived in India in the middle of a war! They traveled more than a thousand miles through India trying to flee from danger.

Two train cars holding the animals they had collected were derailed. For weeks heavy floods brought all transportation to a standstill. Some of their shipments of animals got lost.

They finally sailed back home six months later with dozens of pythons and cobras, three hundred monkeys, more than a thousand birds, and a pair of elephants. Arthur was completely frazzled and utterly exhausted. He declared it the worst trip of his life. But for Jenny the dangers and near disasters had made for a thrilling adventure that had ended much too soon.

She had shown great courage throughout the difficult trip and thought her father would surely now see how helpful she could be to him in his work. What despair she felt when he reminded her of the promise she had made to gt married and settle down, and told her he would never take her on another trip again.

What could Jenny do? She became a secretary. Glumly, she filed papers all day long, daydreaming all the while about the adventures she had had.

Two years later Arthur was traveling in Singapore to collect a shipment for an animal dealer named Henry Trefflich, when he fell ill and died. Jenny called Mr. Trefflich to explain the sad news.

“I’m so sorry,” Mr. Trefflich said. “Your father was the best in the business. Who could possibly go to Singapore to collect those animals for me?” he wondered out loud.

“I’ll go!” Jenny blurted out. The very next week she was on a ship headed for Singapore.

During the long forty-two day voyage Jenny had plenty of time to worry about where she would stay in Singapore, how she would find the animals, how much she should pay for them, and how she would bring them back.

When she arrived, Jenny bought a motorcycle and headed to the animal market. She was the only woman there. At first, the dealers wouldn’t have anything to do with this young motorcyle-riding American girl.

One dealer tried to trick her by selling her a python that had just been fed. Snakes were sold by the foot, and the body of a snake that has just eaten is temporarily stretched out longer. With a shake of her head and a polite smile, Jenny said no.

The dealers soon realized Jenny couldn’t be fooled. They could see she was smart. They could see she understood animals. She was good at striking  bargain, but was always respectful and fair.  By the end of her time in Singapore, Jenny had become friends with everyone at the animal market.

Jenny sailed back to America with one hundred eighty-seven gibbons and Javanese monkeys, thirty-four pythons, a Malayan sun bear, and a very expensive baby orangutan she couldn’t resist buying at the last minute. She thought he looked like a bratty redhead! She dressed him in baby clothes to keep him warm. When Mr. Trefflich saw the orangutan, he was delighted. This rare ape would fetch a fortune.

“When can you start out again?” he asked. And so Jenny’s dream of being an animal collector came true!

On one of Jenny’s many voyages there was a terrible storm. In the middle of the night a cabin boy shook Jenny awake, crying, “Miss Jenny! A board fell and smashed the python’s crate open and now it’s missing!” Jenny and two cabin boys searched frantically for the one hundred seventy-five pound, twenty-seven foot python. The alarmed chattering of the monkeys soon told them where to look. The snake was curled up right next to their crate.

Now if there was one animal Jenny was frightened of, it was snakes. But Jenny knew she was the only one on board who could handle the python.

“Right, boys! I’ll grab the snake’s head so it can’t bite. As soon as I grab it, pull as hard as you can on its tail so it doesn’t squeeze my arm, OK?”

The cabin boys looked queasy with fear, but nodded their heads.

Jenny took a deep breath. In one sudden move, she caught the snake!

“Now, boys! Pull!” she cried.

“Boys?”

Jenny felt the snake coiling ever more tightly around her arm. She looked up and saw that she was alone. The frightened cabin boys had run away!

She lowered the snake down into a dark box and stroked his body to soothe him. The python finally let go of her arm and slithered into the box.

“Slam!” went the lid.

On another voyage, Jenny was transporting seven leopards. One was tame; the other six were wild. A boy cleaning the cages pulled up the door he thought held the tame leopard. He let out the wrong one!

Jenny tried to force the door back down, but the leopard managed to slip out. Angry at having been squashed by the door, he lunged at Jenny. She grabbed the fallen board and held it in front of her as a shield. The leopard’s mighty leap flung the board away and Jenny was knocked down. She raised her arm to protect herself. The leopard gnawed on Jenny’s arm and clawed at her with his paw. Fighting for her life, Jenny managed to flip over and lie on top of the leopard, pinning him under her own body. Jenny was in the hospital for weeks, and had to have several operations.

Now you might think that after such a terrifying encounter, Jenny would have retired, but that was not the kind of woman she was. Her greatest adventure was still ahead.

Mr. Trefflich decided to transport a large number of wild animals by airplane. It had never been tried before. It would cost twice as much, but a sea voyage of a month and a half would only take six days by plane. Jenny was back to work!

Twelve hundred animals were boarded onto the airplane. Two elephants were on either end of the fuselage. Three rows of crates held seven hundred twenty java monkeys, sixteen gibbons, five pigtail monkeys, a baby orangutan, a sun bear, forty hornbill birds, forty mynah birds, three pheasants, five king cobras, nine pythons, a krait snake, a binturong, four monitor lizards, two golden pumas, two black panthers…and three tigers.

In the main cabin with all the animals there was just one chair for Jenny. Captain Metz and his crew were glad to stay in the cockpit, well away from the wild animals.

On the third night after feeding the animals and cleaning their cages, Jenny set her broom aside, turned off the lights, and settled into her chair to sleep.

Suddenly she was woken up by the trumpeting of elephants and the screaming of monkeys. She turned on her flashlight and saw two pairs of lowing eyes peering out between rows of boxes. Another pair of eyes glowed from atop a crate containing terrified, shrieking gibbons. It was the tigers! They had chewed their way out of their crates.

The radio operator raised the alarm, “Captain! The tigers have escaped!”

The pilot chuckled at first, thinking it was a joke. He cracked open the door an gasped when he saw the tigers for himself. He quickly slammed the door shut and said, “We better leave it to Jenny.”

Jenny switched on the lights. She reached for her broom and waggled it at the two tigers slinking right toward her with their tails slowly swishing back and forth.

“Scat!” she cried. They looked scornfully at her and the broom and gave low rumbling growls. Certain they had shown this small creature who was in charge, they sauntered off to explore the rest of the plane. Jenny bravely followed right behind with nothing but her broom.

The third tiger noticed the hullabaloo and prepared to attach Jenny from his perch atop the monkeys’ cage. Jenny leaped up onto the crate and thrust the broom in his face.

The startled tiger jumped down, and now Jenny chased all three tigers through the plane.

They ran in a row, up and down the narrow aisles made by the stacked crates. Around and around they ran, to the alarmed chattering and frenzied screams of the animals watching from their crates. Jenny wondered if she would have to keep chasing those tigers all the way to New York.

Suddenly, as the tigers rounded the corner where one of the elephants stood, it let out a terrific trumpeting scream that shook the whole airplane! The tigers froze in their tracks.

“SMACK!” went the elephant’s trunk on the floor of the plane. The three astonished tigers nervously slunk back into their crate. Jenny grabbed a feeding tray and held it over the broken slats of the crate. She used her flashlight to pound some nails over the tray.

“Phew!” she sighed, wiping her brow. She turned to give a shaky wave to the cheering crew.

Just then the plane hit an air pocket. As it lurched, Jenny was flung against the crate holding the panthers. One reached out and bit her arm!

She cleaned and bandaged the wound, and then stood guard over the tigers all night long. Only four nails held the tray over the slats, and she was afraid the tigers might break loose again.

There were a few more hiccups as the plane continued its journey. The baby orangutan caught a cold. Two of the monkeys got loose. Six of the hornbills pecked their way out of the crate. The elephants broke their tethers a few times. And the pigtail monkeys and the mynahs argued fiercely all the way to New York. It was nothing Jenny couldn’t handle.

The long journey from the East Indies to New York finally ended on May 6, 1949. Jenny and her flying menagerie had made history. It was the largest shipment of animals ever to travel so far by air.

Bananas and peanuts were strewn along the ramp to lure the elephants out of the plane. Jenny walked alongside them down the gangplank, smiling and waving to the cheering crowd of reporters, photographers, and zookeepers who had gathered on the airfield to greet her.

Many newspapers and magazine articles were written about Jenny. One journalist nicknamed her “Jungle Jenny” and the name stuck. In zoos all over the country, elephants, orangutans, and yes: even tigers were named after Jenny. Movie directors invited her to Hollywood to act in movies, but Jenny was not interested. She was doing exactly what she had always wanted to do.

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