JP History: Franklin Park Zoo turns 100

January 20, 2012
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(Photo Courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection) Two grizzly bears splash around one of the pools in the now-abandoned bear dens in Franklin Park, 1929.

This year, Franklin Park Zoo celebrates a milestone that many through its history never thought it never would: its centennial.

“We look forward to welcoming and introducing a whole new generation of people to the wonders of our natural world and will continue to create fun and lasting memories for visitors of all ages,” Zoo New England Director of Communications Brooke Wardrop said.

The first exhibit, the bear dens, opened on Oct. 3, 1912, to crowds of 10,000 people. The bears had been specially purchased from Germany and Yellowstone National Park.

In 1913, the birdhouse and flying cage joined the bears on display. When the aviary opened, it was home to over 400 species of rare and common birds, including robins, peacocks, crows and secretary birds, the only of their kind in captivity at the time.

The flying cage was celebrated by hundreds of children, according to the Boston Post. During the opening of the cage, every time a bird was released into its new home, the children would cheer.

Early residents also included Molly, Waddy and Tony, three performing elephants that were purchased in 1914 with funds donated by over 70,000 local children. They lived next door to Happy the hippo for almost 30 years, until Happy’s death in 1951.

The zoo was never part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan for Franklin Park. Olmsted planned for a half-mile long promenade, called The Greeting, which would sit under elm trees. John Pettigrew, the superintendent of the Boston Parks Commission during the building of the park in the mid-1800s, and his successor Robert Peabody, are the ones responsible for adapting the area into a zoo, meant to boost the park’s low visitor numbers.

Olmsted’s original plan also called for a deer park—which the zoo has now appropriated into Serengeti Crossing, a habitat for African animals like zebras and wildebeest.

Originally charging no admission, the zoo had its highest visitor counts in its very first decade. Two million people visited the zoo in 1920 alone.

After expansion in the 1920s, the 1930s and 1940s were not easy years for the zoo. The Great Depression cut the zoo’s budget and WWII rationing further limited supplies.

The bear dens were distant from newer displays, and as the zoo grew through the 1920s, problems multiplied.

In 1933, for example, some boys climbed into the bear dens and a brown bear snatched the smallest of them. A bigger boy whacked the bear on the nose until the bear released the smaller boy and a zookeeper saved them both.

The park fell into disrepair in the 1960s and 1970s, when discussions were held to discuss the closure of the zoo. The surrounding neighborhood was undergoing significant changes, between an influx of African-Americans from the U.S. South and an increased crime rate.

The bear dens were finally closed in the 1970s and left to fall into disrepair. The parks police was disbanded.

Subsequent to the Franklin Park Coalition’s efforts in the 1970s and 1980s, the park flourished again. The Coalition organized clean-ups and an “Eyes on the Park” neighborhood watch group. Franklin Park was designated a historic landmark by the Boston Landmarks Commission in 1980. The zoo was accredited by the Association of Zoo and Aquariums in 1990.

Since 1997, additions have included African wild dogs, Amur leopards, Baird’s tapirs, Masai giraffes, Grevy’s zebras, lions and tigers, as well as kangaroos, emus, sheep and butterflies. The zoo has also welcomed the birth of a baby gorilla, anteaters, wildebeest, a bongo and twin red pandas in the last year.

The Boston Public Library is also honoring the zoo’s centennial with a talk at the Copley Square branch on Feb. 8 called “Beastly Boston: Episodes in the One-Hundred Year History of the Franklin Park Zoo.” Dr. Rory Browne, zoo historian and a member of Zoo New England’s Board of Directors, will review the zoo’s hundred-year history from its founding to its present renaissance in the context of both the history of Boston and the world-wide development of zoos.

Franklin Park Zoo is open year-round, except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and other announced special events. Its website is zoonewengland.org and it is located at 1 Franklin Park Rd.

Sources: “Franklin Park” by Julie Arrison; “Local Attachments” by Alexander von Hoffman; Boston Parks Department annual reports for Franklin Park, 1911-1926; and zoonewengland.org.

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  • Jef Taylor

    It’s too bad that public transportation doesn’t serve the community around the zoo better. Imagine if the Orange Line went past Forest Hills to a Franklin Park stop. The neighborhood and the zoo would be much better off.