Paul Fritz, a chimpanzee trainer at the Phoenix Zoo, and his assistant (and later wife) Jo Chambers founded the Primate Foundation of Arizona. But how are they connected to Mesa Monkey Farm?

Upfront disclaimer: This is a subject I am reluctant to dive into. Especially since it mixes fact with urban legend — a dangerous mix.

It started with this question from reader Ben Fidler: “What can you tell me about the ‘Monkey Farm’ facility on North Higley in Mesa?”

Though a longtime student of Mesa history, my response was, “Nothing. I’ve never heard of it.”

But his query started nagging at me. So here we are today looking into Mesa’s Monkey Farm.

Over the past few years, the internet has been filled with stories and speculations about a mysterious place in the desert where monkeys were kept in cages — all behind security fencing.

Were there really “monkey skeletons scattered throughout”? Was the place “an abandoned government facility where they used to run tests and experiments on primates”?

Facts so far


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Ferreting out the facts has been a challenge. But here’s what I’ve come up with so far.

First, the Mesa Monkey Farm was not a “zoo” like the 1950’s and 1960’s Jack Adam Alligator Farm or the Hi-Jolly date gardens.

What became known as the Mesa Monkey Farm began in 1968 when Paul Fritz, a chimpanzee trainer at the new Phoenix Zoo, and his assistant (and later wife) Jo Chambers agreed to accept three rejected circus chimps, which they cared for in his apartment. 

It wasn’t long before the Fritzes were receiving regular requests to take in former zoo animals, retired circus chimps, primates once used in medical experiments, and pet chimps that had grown from cute infants to powerful nearly human-size handfuls.

When their apartment filled with eight chimps, it was time to move — initially to a Tempe chicken firm with 20,000 fowls.

Primate Foundation of Arizona


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By 1970, the couple realized few in the country were offering sanctuary for the growing number of primates that needed a home. That’s the year they created the Primate Foundation of Arizona.

Phoenix Gazette reporter Barbara Yost in a 1982 feature described the foundation as “part retirement home for elderly chimps, part nursery and part rehabilitation center for chimpanzees assimilated into the human world” that could not be returned into the wild.

MORE: 10 massive collections of historical Arizona photos

The Fritzes received national attention when an adorable orphaned baby chimp named Kobi was brought to Jane Goodall’s reserve in Tanzania in 1972.

National Geographic writer and photographer Robert Caputo, who found Kobi, recalled in 2012, “because he (was) male and a stranger, the other chimps probably would have killed him. There was no place in Africa for orphaned chimps at the time, so Jane arranged for him to go to Tempe, Arizona.”

Although the Fritzes knew they were providing a valuable service — saving chimps that most likely would not otherwise survive — keeping their foundation going was a constant struggle.

Contributions were few. Big donors and grants were virtually non-existent.

How are Paul & Jo Fritz connected to the Mesa Monkey Farm? That’s for next week.

Reach historian Jay Mark at [email protected].

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