The story of Oliver W. Holton’s Twin Brook Zoological Park and His
Escaped Leopard Shot in Island Heights, New Jersey
Every so often an event takes place that explodes in the common cultural in a way that it becomes the entire focus of day-to-day living of society-at-large. It sometimes becomes so ingrained that everyone is talking about it all of the time, at home, in school, at work, until before long certain people begin to find artistic ways to become part of the story itself, while others are ensnared by default.
The same was true in 1926 when a spotted Indian leopard slipped its cage at Oliver W. Holton’s Twin Brook Zoological Park in Monmouth County, the comedy of errors trailing on for two full months before the leopard was snared in Island Heights, where a trap was set to catch whatever critter was eating up ducks owned by Mrs. Eliza Irons and her son, Willard.
The incident itself happened in August, but the real story began in 1924, when Mr. Holton realized his plans to build a zoological park in Middletown Township, on his acres of property along King’s Highway.
Oliver Williams Holton and his wife, Virginia, were wealthy socialites in the Episcopal community at Middletown, Monmouth County. Mr. Holton was a man of grand scale who followed through on those grand designs in a very successful manner, and the Twin Brook zoo was his most successful endeavor and a dream come true.
Although the zoo did make money and boosted the Holtons into the upper echelon of society, it was largely a philanthropic effort given that the exotic species he maintained there were expensive to purchase, ship, and care for. Holton imported several species of large cats, wolves, hyenas, elephants, alligators, hundreds of snakes and birds, among them 200 flamingos, none of which was indigenous to central New Jersey. That would amount to a very expensive undertaking for Oliver Holton, but one he seemed to very easily work out.
The zoo began with a collection of pheasants, which had the misfortune of being decimated by wild dogs attracted to the muster of birds in the dense woodland area. Holton then dove head first into stocking the game farm with the aforementioned fauna and set a deadline for opening the zoo for Memorial Day, May 30th, 1925.
The killing of the pheasants was not the last time that dogs and other predators attacked the zoo, and it also saw its share of escapes, often by one or more of the 800 monkeys on the premises, but things ran rather smoothly over all and almost overnight the zoo became one of the most popular attractions in the tri-state area. By the May 1st opening people came out in numbers to see the wonders that Oliver Holton had brought to their world. Just two short months later, however, things suddenly turned potentially deadly, sounding what some believed would be the end of the short-lived park.
The new arrival to Twin Brook was a spotted leopard, sent across the seas and on land from India to New Jersey in a cage from which it had once gotten free of along the way. The permanent cage was still being constructed when the leopard arrived, and so it was made to stay in the same contraption that it had traveled the world in, but within an hour of its arrival, the crafty cat had loosened two bars on its cage widening them enough for it to slip through.
It wasn’t immediately noticed that the leopard had escaped and by the time the alarm was sounded it had made its way into the woods and was nowhere to be seen. Holton quickly put together a search team to find it, and although it is the nature of a leopard to run from humans, if cornered or threatened it could potentially kill a human, and so the decision was made right away to shoot the 90 pound beast before it could do harm.
In a bit of a parallel to Frankenstein, the cat was first seen by young Margaret Ellison, who lived in Nutswamp, a farming community south of Twin Brook. Luckily little Margaret hadn’t attempted to approach the animal bearing flowers, but instead she told her father that she had seen “a big, queer dog [with] big spots all over him” out in the orchard. Checking on the girl’s story, Fred Ellison saw nothing and went back to his duties on the farm.
Neither the authorities nor the public were immediately notified that a wild leopard was on the loose in the neighborhood, Holton’s theory being that they would check the farm area first as not to alarm the people unnecessarily, but he didn’t take into account that the cat had ideas of its own and had adapted swiftly to its new environment. Leopards are known for their ability to move about unnoticed through forests and overgrown areas, also having the ability to climb trees, so it was not surprising that it was seen several miles away so close to the time it had escaped.
The driving force for members of the Panthera genus, as is for all life on the planet, is food, and it is likely that the leopard followed the scents of wild game out in the woods. Indeed, it fed on the abundant supply of rabbits and other small game until it tired of that fare and moved on to raiding chicken coops on nearby farms throughout the distance of its journey.
Other sightings, both real and imagined, were reported constantly to the police and to Mr. Holton directly as dozens of people called him on his house phone, a relatively new household appliance that both hindered and helped the situation. In response to these reports, Holton checked out every account that he felt held some credibility, and some that didn’t just in case, and called up his search team to hunt the cat down. Rumors about the cat and what happened abounded immediately, the first of which was that the cat had attacked its prior keeper; something that Mr. Holton immediately said was untrue.
In a move perhaps designed to fend off scam artists and pranksters, Oliver Holton offered a $100 reward for the animal dead or alive and he promised to let the capturer keep the pelt of the beast as a bonus, one taxidermist from Jersey City offering to process it professionally for free. In the end Holton went back on his promise and kept the dead cat for himself, after which he put it on display at the zoo, attracting hundreds of people to the park to get a glimpse of the beast that had held everyone captive for so long.
Ironically, the general public seemed more intrigued than afraid of the leopard, with the possible exception of the huckleberry pickers, most of whom refused to go into thick underbrush out of fear of coming face-to-face with an animal that could kill them in seconds with its sharp fangs and teeth, which in turn left an empty market for that year’s crop. Hunters went on a quest for the reward money and took to the woods in hopes of being the man who brought down the big cat, but more often than not they mistook their hunting dogs for the leopard and shot them instead.
As time passed other methods were employed to catch the beast, the first being the use of bait in the form of small goats and sheep that were tied to trees in hopes of inticing it, but that effort did not work at all. Frustrated, Holton finally decided to add to that method the use of catnip oil sent to him by the Department of the Interior, which had heard about the incident and thought it might help to capture the leopard. That scheme also failed, and the leopard, now free for over a month, continued to survive successfully in a strange land, eluding even the most avid experts in the art of safari hunting.
Meanwhile, the newspapers across the country had gotten hold of the story and sent reporters to get the scoop, some stayed around for a couple of weeks before tiring of the same false alarms day after day. The local papers, specifically the Red Bank Register, continued to keep the story alive, reporting on every incident and sighting that they heard about. The legend of the leopard also began to bleed into the local culture, one man firing most of his road crew because they couldn’t stop talking about it, and some stores using it as an advertising opportunity, giving away small prizes to the child who finds the toy leopard hidden somewhere in the merchandise.
Despite the constant attention on the leopard, Mr. Holton continued to expand the zoo’s stock of new animals, adding a new leopard, two lions, an ostrich and four owls to the inventory. Amazingly, there was no effort made by law enforcement or the local government to help capture the wild cat, despite the potential danger of its existence in their community, which allowed for Holton to continue with the operation of the zoo without threat of closure.
The leopard, in the meantime, was holding its own and depleting the area of small game, which likely forced it to continue its southeasterly route for nourishment. Many chicken farmers complained of attacks on their broods, but it was often discovered that human chicken thieves had been taking advantage of the situation and raiding coops in the middle of the night.
As sightings and animal attacks in the Middletown area began to wane somewhat, it was thought that the leopard had moved on, although where it went off to was anybody’s guess, until finally signs of its presence showed up in Island Heights, roughly forty miles southeast of Middletown.
Sometime in the first week of October, Willard Irons started noticing that his ducks on the pond were disappearing or were being killed by some critter in the woods. Although he had likely heard about the escaped leopard, he didn’t put that together until he caught it in a beaver trap, his mother coming up on the cat, which lunged at her as it tried to break free. Mrs. Irons kept distance enough that the chain couldn’t reach her, but the cat was trapped only by its toes on one foot, and it wouldn’t be long before it freed itself. Willard, hearing the commotion, came out and saw what was going on, went back to the house and got a gun, and then shot the beast in the head with both barrels of his shotgun, killing it instantly. After a phone call to Mr. Holton, Irons put the dead cat in his car and drove it up to the zoo.
Word spread fast about the demise of the cat, and by the time Irons arrived, a crowd had already gathered at the zoo, among them Daniel Dorn of Red Bank, who owned a moving picture camera and filmed the scene as the cat was taken from the car.
There was a certain faction of the public and some newspapers that believed the escaped leopard to be a hoax concocted by Oliver Holton to boost attendance at his park. The dead animal that lay at the feet of the crowd proved otherwise, however, prompting the Newark Evening News to print a poem on the subject:
Felis Pardu Bites the Dust
From Red Bank clear to Island Heights
Relieved, the natives sleep of nights,
Because no more the leopard prowls
The darkness with horrendous howls
Pursue their ways again in peace
The pullets, roosters, ducks and geese,
And cynics doubting words recall;
There was a leopard after all
Willard Irons collected his $100 dollars as promised by Mr. Holton, giving him a nice present for his twenty-first birthday that happened to be the next day, and life basically went back to normal for the community, but that was not where the story ended.
Amazingly, Holton decided in December to move the entire menagerie to the Steel Pier at Atlantic City for the winter months. Dozens of trucks were employed over several days to transport the animals, including sea lions and other water-bound species, to Steeplechase Park, making several trips back and forth in the process. The logistics of such an undertaking must have been tremendous in scope, especially in 1926. The zoo animals made the trip down to Atlantic City and back to Twin Brook farm in the spring with relative ease with no animal deaths or escapes being reported.
Given the events of the previous summer, Mr. Holton looked forward to easier times for the 1927 season of the zoo, but that was not to be, because at the end of July another dangerous animal escaped, this time with much more deadly circumstances.
On July 27th a servant of the Holtons by the name of Mrs. Mazza was inside taking care of the house while her five year old son, and Thomas, the two and a half year old son of Oliver and Virginia Holton, were playing outside in the yard near the house. Suddenly Thomas came into the house screaming and told his mother that a wolf had escaped and was throwing the Holton boy about, rendering him in its teeth and biting at the lad’s flesh.
Ordering her son to stay in the house, she rushed out into the yard with a broom and tried to get the wolf off of Thomas Holton. The wolf let go enough for her to grab the boy, but not before it had bitten her arms. Once free she ran into the house, realizing that her boy had disobeyed her and was at her side during the fight.
Safely inside, she tended to the boy’s wounds, which were not fatal, and went looking for a gun, but while doing so the family dog, Trix, had pushed open the door to let itself out, and the wolf, still after its prey, came in at the same time. It was said that the wolf got by the dog because it had become friends with it as the domestically born beast was normally very docile, even letting the workers at the zoo pet it, but in the end nature won out and drove the wolf to do what nature tells it to do.
Mrs. Mazza heard the screams of the Holton boy and came running just in time to see that the wolf had taken the child outside and resumed its attack. Having found a gun, but no ammunition, she promptly smashed the wolf over the head with it, dazing the animal long enough to free the boy once again, bringing him back to the safety of the house.
The wolf again attempted to enter the house, but it eventually gave up and left the scene. By then Mr. Holton, who had been out looking for the escaped creature, had been notified by a neighboring boy who had heard the commotion and come running in time to see the second attack. Holton tracked the wolf to the edge of a pond and shot the beast dead on the spot.
Unfortunately, Thomas Holton’s injuries from the second attack were much more severe, as the wolf’s teeth had punctured the boy’s lungs in several places. A doctor was called, who drove him to a hospital, but neither he nor an accompanying surgeon could save him.
Needless to say some in the community had had enough of the dangers presented by their neighbor and demanded that the town council shut the zoo down, but amazingly there were no laws under their jurisdiction that allowed for them to do that unless it could be proven that the zoo was a public nuisance. The cries continued, but in the end, Oliver Holton, now devastated by the death of his son, had realized that his dream had become a nightmare, and announced that he would be selling off the animals just as quickly as the market would allow.
The Twin Brook Zoological Park closed its doors forever on October 16, 1927, its fur and feathered residents all eventually sold off and removed from the property.
Despite the tragedy, Oliver Holton’s lust for adventure and the exotic did not entirely wane, as he took his family on a tour of Central America, perhaps to help ease the pain of their loss. Upon their return, the Holtons continued to be active in the social strata, but by May of 1928 it had been decided to sell the farm and all of its equipment.
Oliver W. Holton was a man who lived his life to the fullest and brought joy to hundreds, if not thousands of people in the short time that the zoo existed. An unfortunate turn of events brought an end to those dreams, but not before shining a bright light of joy, learning, and entertainment upon so many people who came so far to share in his vision.