A quirky capuchin monkey was one of the best-known animals in the Zoo, a notorious charmer who won everyone over.
  • 1920s
  • 1960s

Irish the capuchin monkey came to the Zoo in 1927 when he was about four years old and was a favorite among visitors and staff alike. Keepers said that clever was his middle name—and that he was an outlandish and unabashed flirt. When visitors came to see him, he would lean back, cross his arms across his chest, and wrinkle his forehead up and down while gazing intently at his audience with sparkling eyes. Then he would strike a pose, tilt his head right and left, bury his face in his arms and look up coyly with one eye. His audience melted—and he usually got a treat out of it.

In a 1945 ZOONOOZ, Zoo director Belle Benchley described Irish as “one big bundle of personality. His antics never cease to amuse the public, nor does the public ever cease to amuse Irish. He’s greedy and selfish and at times displays a most uncontrollable temper but he has a heart-warming smile and can turn on enough charm to live up to the name ‘The Flirt.’” Associate editor Jacqueline Schermerhorn wrote, “He has an absolutely engaging personality. You can’t help but love him….there isn’t a person alive that can resist this furry little creature with an elastic forehead, a toothy grin, an infectious squeal.”

Irish reigned over his capuchin family, and the others knew not to take Irish’s favorite items or sit in his spot. And if a keeper gave him a cigarette (it was certainly a different time!), he would squeal with delight and dash off to enjoy it without sharing. How did he enjoy it? By opening it up to take out the tobacco and rubbing it all over himself, from head to tail. When cigarettes were in short supply during the war, an onion or a clove of garlic was a second-best choice. It turns out there was a perfectly reasonable explanation: some monkey species do rub strong-smelling substances on themselves to ward off insects!

Irish could be demanding and miserly at times, but he was a good father. He had 23 offspring over the years, and he was always remarkably tolerant and patient with them. He even occasionally shared food with them, something the keepers especially noted, since Irish wouldn’t do that with anyone else.

Irish held the record for longevity in zoos for a New World monkey, and in 1963, mammal curator George Pournelle said of him, “The Zoo and Irish have grown up together. They have seen good and bad times from childhood through adolescence and into maturity, growing lustily, each achieving its own unique status.” This one cheeky little monkey left a big and lasting impression on the San Diego Zoo.

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