The Washington Park Zoo began in 1925 when a retired animal trainer moved his brown bear named “Jake” to the Washington Park lake front. Jake did not have much public exposure after his trainer retired, so the man thought interested people might more often visit his pet in the park and provide company for him. The public response was immediate and a few other animals and birds were brought in from the fire department to add to their menagerie. Back then, the fire department often sheltered discarded exotic animals.
In 1927, City Manager Albert R. Couden, Max Gloye, and Wesley R. Kibby began planning for a special group to bring about the creation of a zoological garden. Behind the zoological garden lay the idea of park development, the study of zoology, and the furnishing of wholesome and free entertainment for the children and adults of Michigan City, as well as for the thousands of people who spent their summers at one of the numerous resorts along the lake front. In 1928, Mr. Couden appointed the first official Zoo Board, and the Zoo was moved off the lakefront to its present location in the sand dunes overlooking the lake.
The Zoo Board began by building new cages, pens, and walks, completed solely with donated materials and volunteer labor. About this time, the Great Depression hit. Materials were scrounged, borrowed, and recycled wherever possible. There is even a story of the resourceful Zoo Board salvaging some structure steel from a nearby bridge and hiding it under manure piles so the City leaders wouldn’t find it.
Under President Roosevelt, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and New Deal policies began to blossom. Indiana, with its New Deal Democratic Governor Paul V. McNutt, was the first state in the nation to get its WPA programs fully underway. Some zoos throughout the state were improved by WPA projects. Washington Park Zoo, however, is believed to be the only zoo in Indiana completely designed and landscaped by the WPA and its predecessor agencies, FERA and CWA (Civil Works Administration). The Zoo and surrounding Washington Park has the most comprehensive and representative collection of WPA-designed and built leisure facilities for the public in Indiana. The WPA program became an important force within the Zoo and as long as the Zoo Board could find materials, the WPA continued to supply the labor.
The first major project was the creation of “Monkey Island” in 1933. This consisted of a center-moated island with a high exterior wall and access tunnel. Completion of this project was in 1934. Several buildings followed, including two landmark structures. The observation tower sits on top of a sand dune east of the Zoo and overlooks Lake Michigan. This tower was creation of a steel railroad tower faced with limestone and is the roof is topped with a spherical ornament reported to be a compression chamber from the city’s first fire engine.
The “Castle” that houses our small mammals was built in 1937 and is a replica of the official insignia of the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army. The Zoo has several winding walkways that were also built during the WPA days. A total of eleven buildings within the Zoo are on the National Register of Historic Places
The Zoo has undergone several changes and growth spurts since those early days. However, none have been nearly as dramatic. Buildings have been refurbished and a few added. The new feline house was constructed in 1977 and is the first area in the Zoo to incorporate the use of gunite rockwork and a more modern design approach. A new elephant house was constructed in 1978, and, until recently, housed the Zoo’s pachyderms. In 1990, the decision was made to no longer exhibit elephants at the zoo and this building was converted into an education facility.
Today, the Zoo has a vast array of animals in its collection, generally housing between 85 and 100 species, totaling around 250 animals. Several are Species Survival Plan (SSP) animals, members of designated endangered species groups.
The landscape plantings for the Zoo and the surrounding park had also been a focus of the community. Intricate watering systems had been placed within the original buildings of the Zoo and provided necessary moisture required to sustain plantings on a sand dune environment. Combined with large city greenhouses to provide the materials, the flower gardens within the Zoo were as much of an attraction as the animals. Pictures from the 1950’s show beautiful landscaping displays. Most of those pipes had fallen into disrepair over the years and the plantings are no longer as elaborate.
Beginning in 1994, a sharper focus was afforded to the area of landscape architecture within the Zoo. Many of the existing flower beds were refurbished, while others were given a totally new design under the guidance of a landscape designer. Other areas of the Zoo have been re-planted to attract native birds and insects, and to provide fresh enrichment items for the Zoo animals.
- The zoo’s new main entrance opened
- Zoo’s gift shop opened
- New arrival of 2 grizzly cubs and 2 Bengal tiger cubs
- Work repairs started on the observation tower and the walk thru aviary
- Construction was started on the North American Carnivore exhibits
- The North American Carnivore exhibited opened which houses the zoo’s grizzly bears, mountain lion and river otters
- Renovation work started on the Primate building. Gone are the bars and tile cages and they are being replaced with glass fronted more realistic exhibits. This house is due to be completed fall of 2009.
- The Australian Avian Adventure exhibit opens, which allows visitors to enter the aviary and feed parakeets and cockatiels.
Above pictured are Zebra and foal in both 1953 and 2007.