On the night of Monday, June 29, John Zarrella, the Miami correspondent for CNN, got a phone call from a woman named Julie Harder, who is the only female licensed alligator trapper in the state of Florida. Mr. Zarrella was just getting started on a profile of her for the news channel. She told Mr. Zarrella that she had a line on a couple of gators. Did he want to tag along with her tomorrow morning?
That day, Mr. Zarrella had awoken before dawn to prepare a piece for CNN’s American Morning about the death of Billy Mays, the late TV pitchman, who had been found dead days earlier at his home in Tampa. Mr. Zarrella felt exhausted. But he knew from past experience that stories involving wild animals could be unpredictable, access to the wary beasts, fleeting. He agreed to meet the gator-trapper early the next morning in Lakeland, a city of roughly 90,000 residents halfway between Orlando and Tampa.
The next day, the gator-hunting commenced. Mr. Zarrella watched as the lady trapper cornered a 3-foot gator who had slipped into a backyard swimming pool. The homeowners cowered nearby. They had just moved to Lakeland from some place up north like Boston. Welcome to the subtropics! Keep your Chihuahuas in sight! Afterward, Mr. Zarrella followed Ms. Harder to a pond where she proceeded to hook a huge gator. Mr. Zarrella marveled at its size. In the Sunshine State, anything over 4 pounds gets processed for food and hides. The big boy was destined for a date with a cleaver.
Mr. Zarrella was still in Lakeland the next day, working on the story, when he got a phone call from the producers for CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. They had a hot lead. Michael Jackson’s former pet chimp Bubbles, they told him, was living in seclusion at an animal sanctuary in the town of Wauchula. Could he back-burner the gators and go get Bubbles?
Mr. Zarrella hopped in his car. Wauchula is a rural hamlet located 40 miles due south of Lakeland that is best known for an infamous hospital mix-up in the late ’70s—an incident that eventually spawned the made-for-TV movie Switched at Birth. For the next hour, Mr. Zarrella drove through a torrential thunderstorm.
He eventually arrived at a wooded compound, surrounded by orange groves, called the Center for Great Apes. About a decade earlier, some kind-hearted souls had set the place up as a sanctuary for orangutans and chimpanzees who had retired from show business or been abandoned by pet owners—or, in Bubbles’ case, both.
Patti Ragan, the woman who ran the simian retirement home, told Mr. Zarrella that she’d initially been reluctant to broker the sit-down with Bubbles. After all, the chimp had long ago given up life in the limelight. But in the days since Michael Jackson’s death, there had been so many wild rumors floating around about Bubbles (that he was dead, that he was still living in L.A., that he’d been turned into a statue) that she now wanted somebody to set the record straight.
Mr. Zarrella was happy to oblige. Over the next three hours, he immersed himself in Bubbles’ world, learning about his life story (Bubbles was born in Austin, Texas, in 1983, sold to Hollywood animal trainer Bob Dunn, and in the mid-’80s toured Japan with Michael Jackson), his current living conditions (he has a roommate named Sam) and his waistline in middle age (Bubbles is no thin chimp).
Eventually, Mr. Zarrella had enough footage. He thanked Ms. Ragan and raced back to Lakeland to edit the package. That night, the piece ran on AC360. “Remember Bubbles the chimp?” said Mr. Cooper. “Ever wonder what happened to him? Our intrepid reporter John Zarrella has tracked him down.”
“Meet Bubbles,” said Mr. Zarrella, over a freshly shot image of the 26-year-old chimp. “Other than Tarzan’s Cheeta, he may be the most famous chimpanzee in the world. Twenty-five years ago, he was Michael Jackson’s pet.”
“He likes cucumbers for lunch and, of course, bananas,” reported Mr. Zarrella. “He likes making faces.”
“Jackson never came to visit Bubbles,” said Mr. Zarrella. “But if he had … he would have gotten pretty excited to see Michael. They might even have moonwalked together for old time’s sake.”
That night, Mr. Zarrella’s piece ricocheted around the Web. Bloggers went apeshit. Some reacted with reverence, others with perfunctory indignation. They call this news? The next night, Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert paid homage. “Anderson Cooper didn’t just scoop me—he spooned me all night long with the one Michael Jackson exclusive every newsman wanted,” said Mr. Colbert. “He got the chimp-xclusive! I’m so mad, I could throw my own feces.”
“Congratulations, Anderson,” he added. “This is even bigger than your 2006 sit-down with Saddam Hussein’s beloved pet: Khalid-Sheik-Mu-Hamster.”
All of which Mr. Zarrella watched with amusement. When The Observer caught up with him a few days later, the veteran newsman stood behind his story. “It was absolutely the right thing to do,” said Mr. Zarrella.
“Somebody said to me, ‘When your story ends up being mocked on The Colbert Report, that ought to tell you something,'” he added. “I said to him, ‘Well, I’m not sure what that says about my career. But it ranks up there as one of the most fun stories I’ve ever done.'”
“Animal stories and the bizarre are always good for television,” he added.