Happy 50th!

Fort Wayne Children's Zoo getting better, not bigger

Asmara, photo courtesy of the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

Asmara, photo courtesy of the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo

This year marks an important milestone for the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo: its 50th birthday. In those five decades, more than 20 million people have strolled its winding paths, seen its multitude of animals, posed with lifelike statues of orangutans and Komodo dragons and learned a few things about conservation to boot.

Zoo Director Jim Anderson, only the second person to helm the zoo since it opened July 3, 1965, says the beauty of the zoo is in its intimacy. “We’ve got 70 acres inside our (perimeter) fence,” he said. “Getting bigger is not a high priority. Getting better is.”

And better is exactly what’s happening now, a trend that’s been maintained each year since Anderson took over the director’s chair from the zoo’s founding director Earl B. Wells in 1994. Anderson, who has spent 40 of the zoo’s 50 years at the zoo, has expanded the zoo’s boundaries to include the large African Journey on the east side of Wells Street, where today lions and giraffes, plus honey badgers, entertain and inform the half-million visitors who explore the zoo in its four-month window of being open each summer.

The zoo’s genesis was years before its opening day, with 54 acres added to Fort Wayne’s Franke Park in 1952 to establish a nature preserve. It featured animal displays including monkeys, a black bear, deer, wildcats, mountain goats and more. The preserve’s popularity encouraged local officials to consider building a children’s zoo, which was a trend during the boom of babies that swept post-war America. According to an online history of the zoo, by 1962, planned exhibits included an Indian village, a prairie dog colony, mammal dens, hoofed animal areas and Noah’s Ark. The zoo would be run by a staff of three, with seven employees added during the busy summer months. Plans in hand, the city’s Board of Park Commissioners appointed a 65-person advisory committee to foster interest in the zoo and raise money.

Fort Wayne rallied behind the project. Within three years, the committee raised $350,000 and secured $200,000 in donated materials and services. By 1963, preliminary site work was underway. Local tradesmen donated their time to install utilities while “zoo boosters” from age 2 to 12 collected pennies to buy an elephant. Community groups sponsored animal exhibits. Even today, the zoo is self-supporting, relying on no public money to operate or expand.

In 1964, Wells, then a young zoo director in Rochester, N.Y., was hired to supervise the new children’s zoo – a position he held until his retirement in 1994. (Wells died in 2004.) It was Wells who developed what was described as a “mudhole” with a petting zoo into the nationally ranked zoo it is today. Under Wells’ guidance, the zoo expanded with new exhibits, rides and exhibitions. Fifty years ago this month, the zoo sat on five and a half acres and featured 18 exhibits. Today, the zoo has developed 46 acres and houses more than 1,500 animals, including the visitor-favorite lions, giraffes, penguins, sea lions and goats, but also dozens of threatened species of amphibians, arthropods and saltwater fish. (Plus the cutest baby Sumatran orangutan, Asmara, pictured here, who was born Nov. 22, 2014.)

Construction is continuing in the Australian Adventure area, with Stingray Bay opening this month to enhance the renovated Australian Adventure Plaza that offers new outdoor dining options and guest amenities.

Look for the return of Tasmanian devils in the coming year, Anderson said. While the zoo doesn’t know yet how many of the marsupials will be moving to the Fort, Anderson said the zoo’s stellar track record in caring for its late Tazzy Coolah means we in the Summit City can help ensure survival of the endangered creatures.

The zoo is celebrating its birthday July 1 at 11 a.m. with a party and birthday cake for guests, but its 50th anniversary celebration lasts through the season, which ends Oct. 11 (just in time for Wild Zoo Halloween, another popular event). Learn more at kidszoo.org.

First appeared in the July 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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