Chattanooga Zoo turns 75: Institution celebrates monumental changes

photo Visitors to the Chattanooga Zoo approach the ticket hut.

THEN & NOWThe zoo has experienced a renaissance since the mid-'80s, when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution called it "Chattanooga's Animal Ghetto."Annual budget• Then: $85,000.• Now: $1.9 million.Species count• Then: About 50.• Now: 123.Staff• Then: Two full-time employees; two additional seasonal part-time.• Now: 21 full-time employees; 20 additional seasonal part-time.

When Darde Long toured the Warner Park Zoo on her first day in Aug. 21, 1985, she realized she was facing an uphill battle of fulfilling her dream of helping animals.

Hank the chimpanzee was surrounded by heavy bars in a cage so cramped he could grab a rung in either hand and rock it from side to side. Down the row, Frankie the hyena paced endlessly in a narrow, 15-foot concrete kennel run until his paws bled.

Then 28, Long was a part-time veterinary student who had thought of little else but working with animals since age 9. She was doggedly optimistic and a self-described "pushy broad" who demanded or scavenged what she needed.

By her second day, she began using her limited resources to improve the then-48-year-old facility.

"It was like operating in the Dark Ages a little bit," she said. "Nobody had thought of the zoo in the sense of needing those things."

If Long ever lost sight of what the animals were going through, she only had to look around her office, a cramped cubby with no phone. It did have air conditioning, though, which meant it served double duty as a recovery room for the animal infirmary next door.

Like the animals, she walked on concrete, a fact she sought to remedy by laying down "heinous" pink tiles she scavenged from the Parks and Recreation Department.

In the 27 years since, both Long and her charges have seen drastic improvements to their surroundings thanks to a two-decade renaissance she led along with Friends of the Zoo, a private nonprofit advocacy and fundraising group.

When Long first arrived, the zoo was a 1 1/2-acre park on the edge of closure. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described it "Chattanooga's Animal Ghetto." Today, the Chattanooga Zoo is a 14-acre, accredited institution with multimillion-dollar exhibits and an emphasis on public education and wildlife conservation.

On June 16, the zoo celebrates its 75th anniversary. As Long looks back on the poor conditions when she started and how much has changed, the zoo's executive director said patience and dogged optimism have paid off.

"What we've done, we've done very well, and we didn't do things until we could do them well," she said.

'Begged and borrowed'

A better zoo has been a long time coming.

In 1937, Commissioner R.M. "Bob" Cooke founded the Warner Park facility in memory of the Oxley Zoo, which opened decades earlier in East Lake. According to a 1941 Chattanooga Times article, Cooke intended it as a compliment to other Warner Park attractions, including a rose garden and a vaudeville theater.

The zoo's first acquisitions were a pair of rhesus monkeys purchased for $15 and housed in a 4- by 6-foot cage. They were the exception to the rule at the zoo, which built its early holdings primarily through donations, Cooke said.

"We have accumulated most of our present collection by ... begging and borrowing," Cooke said.

Other donations included 19 silver and gold pheasants, "a fine assortment of alligators," and two Nubian lions named Nero and Sheba.

In 1938, the Knoxville Humane Educational Society donated a bison named Bill, a carnival escapee. The following year, Cooke acquired a mate for Bill from a rodeo that performed at Warner Park.

A calf, born in 1941, was reputedly so ill-tempered that it was nicknamed "Satan." It eventually proved so troublesome it was given to Camp Forrest, a U.S. Army training facility in Tullahoma, Tenn.

"I sometimes thought he was an Axis agent, he was so mean," Cooke said, in a 1942 Chattanooga Times article. Cooke added that he was excited by the hiring of an animal trainer turned zookeeper who was planning to put on a free "top-notch trained animal exhibition" for guests that summer.

Despite the initial enthusiasm for the zoo, the facility went mostly unnoticed by the media for years, surfacing only occasionally in news articles.

Unlike modern zoological institutions, zoos in the 1960s and '70s were seen mostly as a form of entertainment rather than a source of education and animal advocacy. Most references to the Warner Park Zoo during this period reflect a public with different expectations than modern audiences.

"It's not much of a zoo, but children like it," read a 1964 Chattanooga Times headline. The story's author described guests feeding animals peanuts and cotton candy, and children who took delight in squirting the collection with water pistols.

Few notable expansions were made to the zoo during this period, with the exception of Zooville, a $10,000 petting-zoo enclosure built atop what once was a miniature golf course. The facility, which opened May 17, 1969, was the brainchild of Public Utilities Commissioner Steve Conrad. Its design, he said, was inspired to replicate Petsville, a similar attraction at Six Flags Over Georgia in Atlanta.

Changes needed

By the 1980s, attitudes about zoos were changing. The public was becoming more concerned with animals' quality of life, and increased attention was placed on conditions at the Warner Park Zoo just as Long and Friends of the Zoo became involved.

Dr. Charles "Mickey" Myers has been a member of Friends of the Zoo almost since its inception and has served on its executive committee for more than a decade. As a recent graduate of Auburn University's veterinary program, Dr. Myers said his first work for the zoo in the early '80s was to provide medical care for its animals.

At the time, the public was at loggerheads about the zoo's future, Myers said.

"The first talk a lot of people in Chattanooga had was that we needed to improve the zoo, or it needed to be closed down," he said. "That was the driving force behind Friends of the Zoo. We decided we needed to improve the lives of the animals being exhibited ... or it really wasn't fair to do."

A 1985 Chattanooga Times article quoted veterinarian W.B. Schaffeld, who said the zoo's animals were "basically in good shape" but that the cramped cages were driving many to neurotic behavior. He cited examples such as a fox gnawing its foot and chimpanzees endlessly grooming for phantom pests until their fur came out.

When Long was hired, the zoo's critics were already calling for swift change. Some proposed closing it entirely. Public Utilities Commissioner Pat Rose suggested relocating the exotic animals to other institutions and turning it into a petting zoo.

Long said the latter possibilities didn't account for the logistics of relocating so many animals.

"Our zoo was what it was," she said. "We couldn't wipe it clean because there were animals involved."

Baby steps

When they finally came, the improvements were slow.

Long began by ordering the concrete cage floors be covered in straw. New landscaping helped obscure the chain-link barriers that gave the zoo a prison-like appearance.

One of Friends of the Zoo's first projects was to build a fence to keep out dogs that entered the park in November 1985 and killed a deer and a pair of flightless birds called rheas. The nonprofit also helped build a new dirt-floored enclosure for Frankie the hyena, including a den made from a repurposed concrete coffin vault.

These early steps often were stopgap measures, but they represented something greater, Long said.

"The intent was to give people a glimpse of what the zoo could be like until we had the money to make it happen," she said.

Friends of the Zoo's early fundraising efforts were grassroots affairs, such as car washes and bake sales. As part of the zoo's 50th anniversary in 1987, the organization proposed a new program to allow donators to "adopt" animals they would then support with an annual stipend.

In 1989, the city and Friends of the Zoo co-funded a $35,000 study by a New Orleans-based architectural group to draft a new master plan for the zoo. According to a 1989 Chattanooga Times article, the consultant, Azeo Torre, expressed disgust at the conditions after a visit, saying, "There's nothing here worth saving. Nothing."

Torre proposed a five-year overhaul that would have expanded the zoo to 18 acres and would have included multimillion-dollar exhibits for Asian and African wildlife, such as lions, elephants and giraffes. The proposal, which would have cost $14 million, was nicknamed the "mega zoo."

The plan was eventually deemed to be too expensive, but Long said it provided the seeds for a revised approach emphasizing improved care for the existing collection.

"We looked at our animals," she said. "We said, 'While it would be nice to bring in lions and tigers, we have jaguars, and we need to do something for them.' "

A new zoo

Long said the first indication of major change came in 1992 when Hank was relocated to a much larger enclosure complete with grass.

Even though the pen was never designed to be permanent -- and would be replaced in 2001 by the $1.9 million Gombe Forest exhibit -- improving conditions for such a high-profile animal was a major milestone.

"That was big," Long said. "We had done smaller stuff, but Hank was really the stepping stone to bigger things."

After that, the high points came in quicker intervals. In 1996, a new $225,000 exhibit for the zoo's jaguars was crucial to achieving accreditation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums two years later. That distinction held the zoo to the same professional standards as much larger institutions and was a goal Long said she had been pursuing since her first months on the job.

The zoo was accredited again in 2003 and in 2008 and is preparing for the next evaluation, which will take place September 2013.

In 2004, the zoo opened its latest major exhibit, the Himalayan Passage, which houses snow leopards, langurs and the world's largest indoor red panda facility. In 2008, just after Hank's 40th birthday party in 2008, work was completed on a $4.3 million entrance complex off Holtzclaw Avenue.

Despite the progress that has been made, the deaths of several animals at the zoo in the last 18 months drew intense scrutiny to the facility. In early 2011, seven animals died over the course of a few weeks, including Hank, who passed away of heart disease at age 42.

As a result of the deaths, the zoo was inspected four times by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service between September 2010 and May 2011, garnering 21 violations, according to past Times Free Press coverage. The USDA inspector called for addressing several issues, including repairs to indoor and outdoor housing facilities and storage of food.

Soon, the zoo will begin offering camel rides to visitors. As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, which continues through mid-June, the zoo also has begun offering daily animal presentations that will continue indefinitely.

Myers said Friends of the Zoo soon will begin re-evaluating the master plan with an eye on how best to fill an expansive lawn near the entrance complex. Exhibits with African penguins, Komodo dragons and giraffes all have been presented as possibilities, Myers and Long said.

Monday, the zoo echoed to a staccato chorus of nail guns as roofers continued work on Deserts and Forests of the World. When it opens later this summer, the new $400,000 exhibit will house several species of venomous snakes (a zoo first) as well as other reptiles and mammals.

Part of the new exhibit's construction included the removal of the final, iron-barred cage used during the zoo's "animal ghetto" days. While that enclosure was a solemn reminder of the zoo's progress, Long said that, just like the pink tiles in her old office, some things are better left in the past.

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