When the Arcadia Publishing company heard I was working part-time as a Motor Safari tram guide at Brookfield Zoo, an editor approached me about doing a new book for their "Images of America" series.
You may have seen these slim paperback illustrated histories of various neighborhoods, communities and towns with their vintage sepia photos on the covers. I'd previously done books on Oak Park, Cicero, Berwyn, and Maywood. But the Arcadia folks won't really rest until every corner of the entire nation has its own book. So they told me they were especially intent on adding a Brookfield Zoo title to their list of publications in time to celebrate the zoo's 75th anniversary this summer. Was I interested?
Of course I said yes. I enjoy a good challenge, and I also had many fond memories of visiting Brookfield Zoo over nearly 60 years, both as a child and with my own children. A book sounded like a wonderful project, and this time I would be working with a co-author, Carla W. Owens, zoo archivist and manager of library services. We made a good creative team.
During the course of completing the book, Carla and I found a lot of amazing stuff. We located photos and publicity materials that had not been seen in seven decades. In the "attic" level of one of the big commissary barns on the south side of the zoo, we discovered displays and souvenirs dating back to the early 1930s.
Since I wasn't sure how to approach a story about my own book, I decided to "interview myself," using some of the questions most frequently posed by guests at the zoo:
How was Brookfield Zoo established?
The Chicago Zoological Society was founded in 1921, following a gift of 83 acres of land from Chicago socialite Edith Rockefeller McCormick, daughter of industrialist John D. Rockefeller, who was said to be the richest woman in the nation during the '20s. McCormick donated the land to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County purposely for a large modern zoo similar to the innovative bar-less zoos she had enjoyed in Europe. Critics of Mrs. McCormick were cynically convinced the back taxes she owed on her failed housing development in Brookfield was the true reason for her generosity. But following her gift of land, the Forest Preserve District added another 98 acres. This vast tract was initially dubbed the Chicago Zoological Garden. But before long, people simply started calling it "Brookfield Zoo."
How did the hard times of the Great Depression of the '30s impact the zoo?
Construction began in the mid-1920s. The Reptile House, now vacant and awaiting renovation, was the first completed building in 1927. The elegant South Gate and administration buildings were finished next. But all development and construction came to a screeching halt with the 1929 Stock Market Crash. No further building took place until Civil Works Administration laborers became available.
Amazingly, once the zoo finally was able to open in 1934, attendance continued to climb, despite the difficult economic challenges of the Great Depression.
In what ways was this new zoo different and unique?
There were no bars or cages, for the most part. Large moats, often filled with water, allowed the animals to be safely viewed by guests.
Edwin H. Clark, a well-known Chicago architect, designed all the original buildings in a blend of classical Greek and Renaissance Italian styles. Guests often found the interiors of the exhibits as impressive as the outdoor animal displays and grottos.
Indian Lake in the western portion of the zoo was entirely man-made. Its construction in 1927 was a massive project. Locomotive tracks were laid so a train could remove the tons of dirt and debris from the area. Today guests stroll around this beautiful body of water.
The North Gate was completed during the hard times of the early Depression years and is less majestic than South Gate, which was completed in '27. Most guests today entering from 31st Street walk through the underpass below the street.
The massive Pachyderm House was covered entirely in rock so that from the ground it appears to be a huge hill or butte. The building, solidly constructed of metal, was designated a community fallout shelter during the Cold War in the '50s.
The Bear Grottos, featuring huge artificial rock-work yards, were often cited by guests as their favorite outdoor exhibit.
Who were some of the most popular animal "stars" over the years?
Probably one of the most famous residents of the zoo was Ziggy (short for Ziegfeld, the early 20th-century showman who was the elephant's original owner). Ziggy had been kicked out of the Ziegfeld Follies for rambunctious behavior and arrived at Brookfield Zoo in 1936. Believed to be the largest animal in captivity in the country, over the years Ziggy built a cult following. After a massive media crusade to move the popular elephant into his own special yard in the '70s, thousands of school kids sent in their pennies, nickels and dimes to finance his new residence. Unfortunately, the beloved 55-year-old bull elephant accidentally fell into his exhibit moat and died soon afterward.
Olga the walrus arrived from the Copenhagen Zoo in 1962 as a 1-year-old. She loved to ham it up for her fans and would delight in spraying unsuspecting guests with water if they ventured too close to the railing. Olga was the most expensive animal in the zoo to feed, eating 45-60 pounds of seafood per day ($60,000 worth of fish a year).
Samson was a popular lowland silverback gorilla who died in the late '80s. Today there is a striking life-size bronze sculpture of Samson just outside the entrance to Tropic World.
Affie, a beloved 9,520-pound African elephant, just died several weeks ago at age 40. Each year the zoo would celebrate Affie's birthday with a huge cake made of hay and fruits with "candles" that were actually carrots.
The sole survivor of the original 1934 collection of animals is Cookie the cockatoo. The exact age of this beloved pink and white bird is unknown, but he is believed to be at least 77 years old. Cookie long ago acquired a loyal following among zoo visitors, "Cookie's groupies," who come specifically to see him in the Perching Bird House. He even receives fan mail.
Have animals ever escaped?
This has seldom happened. As you might imagine, there are many safety procedures in place. But there was an incident 40 years ago on July 17, 1969, when a sudden, torrential downpour flooded the moats in front of the bear enclosures. Seven bears simply swam out and escaped. These bears-on-the-loose tore open a concession stand, helping themselves to marshmallows and other treats. The escaped bears were eventually rounded up without causing harm to themselves, other animals or visitors.
At that time, animal feeding was not prohibited. In fact, a popular guest pastime was hurling marshmallows by the hundreds into the Bear Grottos. Guests enjoyed watching the animals "begging." In 1970 the sale of marshmallows was discontinued.
Is it true that a gorilla rescued a human baby?
Yes, in 1996 a 3-year-old boy climbed over a barrier planer and railing and tumbled down into the bottom of the ravine into the gorilla habitat in Tropic World. He suffered a concussion, a broken hand, and facial cuts and abrasions. Binti Jua, a western lowland gorilla, with her daughter Koola on her back, picked up the unconscious human child, cradled him and then carried him safely to the keepers' access door. Binti Jua was honored as Newsweek's hero of 1996 and designated by People magazine as one of the 25 most intriguing people of the year.
Is it also true Brookfield Zoo was the first zoo to exhibit pandas?
In 1937, through a private collector, the zoo acquired a giant panda from the remote Chinese mountain valleys of Szechuan Province. Su-Lin, which means "a little bit of something precious," was the first of the species to be displayed in this hemisphere.
"Panda-monium" resulted, with 53,000 visitors jamming the zoo on Su-Lin's first day on exhibit. Celebrities like Shirley Temple and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to see this panda. Soon another named Mei-Mei, which means "little sister," was purchased. For a considerable length of time, these animals were erroneously believed to be females.
A third panda, Mei-Lan, arrived in 1938. The zoo has not exhibited pandas since Mei-Lan's death in the 1950s.
Thousands of people have been employed by the zoo over the years. Were any of them particularly colorful or interesting?
One of my favorites is Grace Olive Wiley, the zoo's first curator of reptiles, hired in 1933. She was an eccentric but determined woman working in a male-dominated field and the first person to successfully breed diamondback rattlesnakes in captivity. She took enormous risks but always maintained, "There are no bad reptiles, only careless keepers." Wiley would say, "When I'm bitten, I blame myself, not the snake." After her dismissal from Brookfield Zoo for "repeated negligence with dangerous reptiles," Wiley succumbed to a cobra bite in 1948.
How many volunteers work at the zoo?
Over 300 volunteers and 300 docents serve as park greeters and exhibit guides. They play an important role in educating guests and promoting conservation leadership.
What's the zoo doing for their 75th birthday?
On July 1, there will be a special program at the zoo. Carla Owens and I will be signing copies of the book. Throughout the summer there will be other events, including several historical tours on the trams.
The newest addition to Arcadia Publishing’s popular Images of America series is Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society.
Explore the birth of this regional and national treasure and its growth over the past seven decades with journalist and historian Douglas Deuchler, author of Oak Park in Vintage Postcards, Maywood, Berwyn, and Cicero Revisited, and Carla W. Owens, zoo archivist, manager of library services and animal lover with a passion for history.
Brookfield Zoo first opened its gates to the public on July 1, 1934. The zoo has impressed millions with its bar-less exhibits and its expansive collection of rare and endangered species. Managed by the Chicago Zoological Society and located 14 miles west of the city’s center, the zoo serves as an inspiring natural refuge for weary urbanites, while also drawing visitors from across the country with its innovative and expansive exhibits, unusual and diverse species and gorgeous landscaping.
Through more than 200 historic images of Brookfield Zoo, the authors uncover its origins—the land was originally a gift from Chicago socialite Edith Rockefeller McCormick in the 1920s and was later augmented with additional acres from the Forest Preserve District of Cook County—as well as its evolution into an internationally celebrated center for conservation, animal care, and environmental education.
Highlights of Brookfield Zoo and The Chicago Zoological Society:
• Many of the images were taken over several decades by award winning photographers such as Ralph Graham, Roland LaFrance, Michael Greer and Jim Schulz.
• The majority of these images have never been published.
Available at area bookstores, independent retailers, and online retailers, or through Arcadia Publishing at www.arcadiapublishing.com or
Arcadia Publishing is the leading publisher of local and regional history in the United States. Our mission is to make history accessible and meaningful through the publication of books on the heritage of America’s people and places. Have we done a book on your town? Visit www.arcadiapublishing.com.