ST. LOUIS • The St. Louis Zoo opened its new $225,000 bird house on Oct. 5, 1930. It was the last word on avian habitat for urban zoos, allowing visitors to see and hear their exotic feathered friends up close.
The zoo boasted a rare collection of rare birds. Brewer August Busch Sr. had donated a King parakeet, one of only three in the United States.
Another St. Louisan gave the zoo his parrot, which had a flaw that went unnoticed until the crowds arrived.
The red-headed bird cursed a blue streak. The Post-Dispatch reported that its mildest phrase was “Go to hell.” Other oral flourishes couldn’t make print.
Embarrassed zookeepers quickly banished the parrot from public earshot, calling its vocabulary unsuitable for children. Director George Vierheller said the zoo would restrict it to the quarantine room until an indulgent owner was found. He wouldn’t identify the parrot’s former owner, frustrating reporters who wanted to expose the bird’s education.
Newspapers across the country ran headlines about St. Louis’ “profane” or “potty-mouth” parrot. On Nov. 11, 1930, the Post-Dispatch followed up with a photo of the notorious bird and word that the zoo had received more than 500 letters, telephone calls and telegrams from people offering to give it a new home.
Motivations varied. Several offered to reform the bird. A woman in Virginia promised to teach it to pray. A man in St. Petersburg, Fla., suggested letting it live on a 17,000-acre tract where it “can use any language he chooses.”
Members of Pi Kappa Alpha at the Missouri School of Mines in Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology) wrote, “There are 88 boys in this fraternity who would be more than pleased to have a pet that is both entertaining and instructive.”
The wife of a St. Louis police officer said the parrot could give her husband’s salty tongue some competition. And from Ottawa Lake, Mich., came this plaintive plea: “I am a lone widow, 65 years old. My husband died two years ago and I am awful lonesome.”
The zoo’s own monthly newsletter joined in the fun, describing the development as a “great scandal” and saying the bird’s language “would make even a hardened sea captain blush.” Encouraged by the fuss, Vierheller announced he would sell the parrot to the highest bidder.
The oddest bid was to trade it for two baby alligators, but in the end, the parrot went to a man in New York for $150, a whopping sum given that new 1930 Ford sport coupes were advertised for $525.
The zoo still uses the Spanish-style bird house. It has 18 parrots there and in the Children’s Zoo. None of them is known to use foul language.
If the St. Louis Zoo had a Walk of Fame of animals, here would be its first class
Tim O'Neil is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Contact him at 314-340-8132 or email@example.com