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Me, Spiderman, and the Life-Changing Bite

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 2, 2014


To mark today’s release of yet another tired version of the Spider-Man story, here’s a slightly different version of the story I published earlier this week.  I wrote this version last year while cleaning out my Dad’s house after his death.  It’s being published today, like Hollywood sequels, as if on auto-pilot, because I scheduled it back then and promptly forgot about it.

You remember that scene in the “Spiderman” comic where young Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider?

By way of reminder, here’s a panel from the original comic, published in the early 1960s.  (Yes, cartoonists back then thought that spiders were insects.)  This was the key event that turned mild little Parker into the celebrated web-swinger.

So when my father died recently, I began going through his father papers and I came across a story he wrote about zoo doctors.  Late in 1963–50 years ago now–he took me to the Staten Island Zoo as part of his research, and there veterinarian Patricia O’Connor introduced me to to the year-old chimp in the picture below.

A photo of this scene appeared in the article “Physicians for Fang and Fur,” published in February 1964 in Columbia Magazine.  It wasn’t my first appearance in a magazine.  The Saturday Evening Post had published a poem he wrote about me as a “pink and precious” infant “tiny, elfin, fey.”  But it was my first appearance as an identifiable person.

Anyway, immediately after this photo was taken that day at the State Island Zoo, the chimp bit me in the arm … and NOTHING WAS EVER THE SAME.

Patricia O'Connor, young culprit, unsuspecting victim at the Staten Island Zoo.

Patricia O’Connor, young culprit, unsuspecting victim at the Staten Island Zoo.

O.k., I didn’t exactly develop magical powers to swing through the trees or, chimpanzee-fashion, hurl shit at the heads of approaching strangers.  But I became a writer about wildlife. Same thing, almost.

Until now, I had completely forgotten this episode. When interviewers asked me how I started writing about wildlife, I told them how an editor once asked me to write about New Jersey’s state bird, the salt marsh mosquito, and how I became fascinated with the incredible surgical tools in the mosquito’s proboscis.

Really, all I had to say was: Bitten, age 12, by radioactive chimpanzee.

For the record, here’s my dad’s story.  He calls ungulates “cow- and deer-type animals,” and refers to several species as “monsters.”  But I’m not complaining.  It’s a step up from some of the other stories he was writing at about the same time, co-authored with J. Edgar Hoover.



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