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Lions and tigers and ... caterpillars?
By John Johnston   - 03/02/2010

Cincinnati Enquirer

More Info on This Book: The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden

Say what? The Cincinnati Zoo got its start because of caterpillars? And people once worried that the park's location was too remote?

Yes on both counts, says Joy W. Kraft, author of "The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden" (Arcadia Publishing; $21.99), a 128-page paperback packed with more than 170 historical photos. It's out this week.

The book, the latest in Arcadia's Images of America series, traces the nation's second-oldest zoological park (after Philadelphia) from its beginnings in the 1870s to modern day.

Photos from the book

There are plenty of animals in the book, but also some intriguing humans, such as zoo founder Andrew Erkenbrecher, a successful businessman and native of Germany.

"He loved birds," says Kraft, who lives in Mount Lookout and is a former Enquirer and Cincinnati Post journalist. "He formed a group with other bird lovers to import song birds (from Europe) to Cincinnati, in part to solve a caterpillar problem. The caterpillars were eating all the trees."

Apparently not much thought was given to the ecological fallout from introducing nonnative species, such as starlings, Kraft says. Anyway, after Erkenbrecher and friends started the Society for the Acclimatization of Birds, momentum carried forward to the 1873 formation of the Zoological Society of Cincinnati.

Eden Park (not enough trees) and Burnet Woods (too valuable a property) were passed over as possible zoo sites in favor of 66 acres of Avondale cow pasture then known as Blakely Woods.

"The criticism was that the property they finally settled on was too far from the city, like five miles," Kraft says. "That was a long way to go."

But people have been going to the zoo since that chilly day the gates opened, Sept. 18, 1875.

For Kraft, the book project linked her love of history, horticulture and animals. She sought out Deb Zureick, who works in the zoo's horticulture department and is the keeper of zoo photos.

"She's got a couple of huge filing cabinets full of stuff," Kraft says. "So I just kind of set up shop and started to go through the pictures."

Among the lithographs, sketches, and photos that made the cut:

The Buffalo House, the zoo's first building. The wooden structure had burned down by the beginning of the 20th century.

The stone Monkey House, which is today's Reptile House. Built in 1875, it's the oldest existing American zoo building.

The original zoo entrance, showing people arriving by carriage, horse-drawn trolley and buggy.

The Clubhouse and Restaurant. The zoo's social centerpiece, it could accommodate as many as 1,500 people. It was razed in 1937.

"In the beginning, the zoo was really Cincinnati's living room," Kraft says. "It's where people went to socialize. They had dances and bands. The entertainment offered was just amazing - every weekend, all weekend, all day, all evening."

Animals, of course, have always been the main attraction. The book chronicles favorites through the years, including the expected assortment of lions, elephants, giraffes and camels. Among the surprises: 13 dogs were on display on opening day in 1875.

What's clear is that the care and exhibition of animals has changed drastically over the past 135 years.

Photos from 1940, for example, show Rodney the boxing kangaroo duking it out with his trainer in a makeshift ring; both are wearing boxing gloves.

For years, it also was common practice for animals to be mounted after death and displayed in zoo buildings.

And as the chapter on apes illustrates, exhibits of yesteryear often were a far cry from the naturalistic displays prevalent today.

In an 1880s photo, two chimpanzees are dressed in a suit and dress, with a caption, "we have been married 20 years."

In the 1930s and '40s, a western lowland gorilla named Susie was a popular celebrity.

"She was very well taken care of," Kraft says, "but she kind of lived in a netherworld, caught between being a wild animal and a human being. They taught her to cut her food. ... and dressed her in crazy outfits. She had her own refrigerator."

Even though we wince at those practices today, "conservation and education have been there from the beginning," Kraft says. "Those are still things (the zoo is) trying to do - conserve endangered species, keep people coming and educate them."

Buy It Now: The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden $21.99

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