Danger at the Zoo

Published in 2005; author Kathleen Ernst; illustrator Jean-Paul Tibbles


Kit just landed the perfect summer job: she'll be earning a dollar a week (about $15-16 today) to write a 250-word column in the newspaper! She's going to cover light topics, like events at the Cincinnati Zoo. The editor wants to keep interest in the paper, and he figures getting a child involved writing something for other children is the way to go. Kit is on cloud nine. She can interview Ruthie after her friend returns from the Grand Canyon, she can accompany Stirling on one of the guided tours he gives with his Boy Scout troop...she can hardly wait to start. Plus, she figures she can turn in the fluff pieces along with real stories. Maybe she'll get two dollars a week!

When she returns home with her good news, she's pleasantly surprised to see Will, her hobo friend. He's passing through on his way to farms in the Southeast, looking for a paying job to help his family, especially now that his mother's ill. Acting on a tip from Stirling, Will's able to get a job at the zoo. He's going to be around the Kittredge house for a bit still, as his first paycheck is still two weeks away. He'll help out with some chores in exchange for meals (they offer him Charlie's bed, since Charlie's back in Montana working but he declines in favor of sleeping outside). Kit sees him working there when Stirling takes her on a tour. She also sees some people striking for better pay, and wonders if that might her real story. Or maybe she can write a column encouraging the zoo to have one free day a month so people who are destitute can take their minds off their troubles. Or maybe something exciting at the zoo: the superintendent informs Will that he left a cage door in the monkey house unlocked, despite Will's protests that he secured it. Both Will and the superintendent are so sure of themselves. Did someone else unlock the door? The same thing happens again a few days later. Kit also overhears a gruff zoo janitor complaining about the cost of the improved zoo exhibits when his pay isn't that great. Maybe he had something to do with the lock. Kit's sure there's a big story hiding the zoo.
Strange things are happening at home too. Food starts disappearing, just a few peaches here and a loaf of bread there, but the food budget is strained enough already. Since Grace hasn't barked a warning or hello to anyone, whoever's taking the food must be someone she knows, someone in the house. Stirling gingerly points out that Will is a likely suspect. Kit doesn't want to admit that; she likes Will too much. Stirling also hopes Will is innocent, but says they can't rule him out. Late one night, Kit sees a man in a fedora scurry through the backyard. Will doesn't have a fedora...this must prove he's above-board! But she's reluctant to tell her parents, fearing they'll still blame Will for bringing riff-raff around, especially the next morning when her dad discovers his suit is missing.

Kit gets so focused on the mysterious happenings that she slacks with her newspaper stories, and they're both rejected. Ashamed, she resolves to focus on delivering what the editor asked her for, and one of the new boarders even helps her with the piece. But can't completely ignore the rest of what's going on, especially when she and Stirling realizes that someone might be planning to steal an animal from the zoo (maybe the baby rhesus monkey?) and the theft will almost certainly happen during the Fourth of July celebration. Their families will be attending anyway, so they just have to slip away from them and guard the monkeys. After some confusing bit of plot, it all comes out that a homeless man who's been hanging out around the zoo used to work for a circus, and had raised the new chimpanzee from infancy. He's Hungarian and only speaks a little bit of English, so he wasn't able to tell the zookeepers, except for one who knew the animal's background and was planning to reunite the pair (he feared the chimpanzee would die of loneliness; his old keeper worried the zoo would go broke and be forced to sell the animals). The keeper is reprimanded for not bringing this to the attention of the superintendent sooner--of course he would have done what was best for the animal!--and the Hungarian man is offered a position at the zoo until he and the chimpanzee are settled. Will is exonerated! Kit is inspired and again turns in two newspaper articles, the one asked for and one about the Hungarian man. Both are accepted.

The other mystery is soon out in the open too: one of the new boarders is hiding the fact that she's married. She's a teacher, and married teachers are in danger of losing their jobs so single women can have them, as it's assumed a married woman will have a husband to provide for her. But her husband is unemployed himself, so she's been the sole provider. He'd been living in the hobo camp, and borrowed the suit for some interviews, thinking he could return it before anyone noticed. Everyone agrees to keep things quiet, happy to finally know what's going on. The other new boarder, who had been grating on Mrs. Kittredge's nerves, also has a surprise. She's made a beautiful quilt for Mrs. Kittredge, to thank her for opening her home to so many people.

Looking Back

The Cincinnati zoo has been around for decades, and during the Great Depression twenty-five cent visits and stories about it in the newspaper offered people a chance to unwind from their stress. The building which held apes and monkeys in Kit's time (reptiles today) is America's oldest zoo building still in operation. Its long-time superintendent, Sol Stephan, was a pioneer in making realistic habitats for animals, instead of just bars and concrete. He started doing that in the 1910s. Today, his vision is the norm for zoo exhibits.


This book is dedicated to "every girl who dreams of being a writer."

I guess it's 1932 again, since the newspaper editor says June 20 is a Monday. Even though Kit's done with fifth grade now.

And then a few pages later the text specifically points out that 1933 was two years ago.

There are two new boarders, a widow who quilts and a younger woman who teaches high school English. Mr. West from the last book is nowhere to be found. Mr. Peck is still there, and of course Stirling and his mother.

Monkeys and apes aren't the same thing. Zookeepers should know that.

Kit reflects that it's too bad money is so tight that her mother worries about someone stealing just one loaf of bread. I bake bread a lot, and I'd be mad not only because of the money issue, but because bread takes forever to make. (I don't use a bread machine; two of my three main recipes wouldn't work in one)

When my mother was very young, a zoo lion in cage peed on her through the bars.  Last year, a tapir at the Woodland Park Zoo (awesome zoo: www.zoo.org) would have done the same to me had it not been behind glass in an exhibit with lots of plants and space to run around.

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