What had been anticipated as a banner year for the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo did not start at all the way anyone had hoped. In longtime executive director Jim Anderson’s final year, the zoo opened to members only on June 14, and plans to open to the general public around July 4, per Governor Holcomb’s Back on Track Indiana Plan.
In response to the plan, the zoo has increased the number of cleaning crews, placed social distancing signs and markers, added more hand sanitizing stations, eliminated drinking fountains, and will reduce capacity on its rides. But even as the year differs from what staff, volunteers and the community had hoped, the zoo will remain one of our Fort Wayne treasures and will continue its long-term growth.
It is quite remarkable to consider that what started as an extension of Franke Park – a “nature preserve” with a collection of animals that could have been rounded-up in the adjacent woods (except the monkeys, of course) – has become one of the greatest children’s zoos in the country, welcoming over 600,000 visitors each season of a regular year.
One explanation for the steadfast growth of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo has been the commitment, passion, and consistency of its leadership. The zoo has had only two directors in its history – Earl B. Wells, the zoo’s founder, served as director from its opening in 1965 until 1994. Wells was followed by long-time zoo employee Jim Anderson, who announced in March that the 2020 season will be his last as executive director. In spite of his impending retirement, Anderson remains confident about where the zoo stands.
“Twenty-three million people have visited the zoo since it opened, and the entire thing has been built by donated funds,” said Anderson. “That’s close to $40 million in improvements.”
Going back to the 1960s, most zoos had indoor exhibits presented museum-style, and opportunities for fun were an afterthought. But the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo has always taken its own approach. Anderson quoted Wells, who said, “People don’t want to just see things; they want to do things.” Anderson knows what can be seen as trends in other zoos have been hallmarks in Fort Wayne: natural
spaces, strong guest engagement, and lots of contact with passionate staff and volunteers.
As an adult visiting the zoo with children, the natural spaces are not just beautiful, but also transportive. Anderson noted this goes beyond aesthetics.
“Presenting the animals in the largest, most naturalistic spaces possible is good for the animals and good for the guests. It reinforces our most basic interpretive message: wild animals need wild spaces,” he said. “We like taking people outside, under the blue sky, through a lush rainforest, open African savannah, and dusty Australian Outback.” And in such spaces, it is more likely that the animals will display their natural behaviors. “When people see this, a connection is made. That is why we exist.”
Another major tenet of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo is their role in animal and habitat conservation. The zoo achieves this through three primary means: management of the animals under their care, support of worldwide conservation partners, and sharing their passion.
“Efforts with our animals have always been based on exemplary animal care and welfare,” said Anderson. Over the past three decades, these efforts have evolved to include the collecting and sharing of information among 238 accredited zoos, including data on the genetics and pedigrees of the animals, as well as guidance about shifting animals between zoos to maximize social groups, reproductive pairings and genetic diversity.
Additionally, the zoo works with partners around the world helping animals in their natural environments. In 2019, the zoo invested $286,000 with 33 conservation partners, such as Lion Guardians in Kenya, or another that helps primate researchers in Indonesia work with local farmers to grow shade-grown coffee in an effort to preserve rainforest habitat for gibbons.
“The programs of our conservation partners always include the people living where the animals live,” he said. “If a conservation program isn’t relevant and beneficial to the local people, it will not succeed.”
And Anderson knows that for such conservation success stories to continue to be possible, these stories need to be shared with guests. “By sharing these stories, we help our guests better appreciate what they can do to support wild animals and wild places. This is our highest goal.” kidszoo.org
SPECIAL ZOO RESIDENTS:
ZURI – RETICULATED GIRAFFE
Zuri, the oldest giraffe in North America, celebrated her 31st birthday on December 6th.
NORBERT – ALDABRA TORTOISE
With an estimated age of 58, Norbert is believed to be the oldest animal at the zoo.
EDGAR – MARABOU STORK
Edgar arrived at the zoo in 1979 when he was nearly a year old, and is considered the zoo’s longest resident.
DIZZY – CAPUCHIN MONKEY
Dizzy was born at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in November 1990 and has lived here ever since, making her the oldest resident from birth.
GREY – AFRICAN GREY PARROT
Grey will be 41 this October, and is the oldest Ambassador Animal. He has been visiting area schools since 1981.