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Staff File Photo / Chattanooga Zoo executive director Darde Long stands next to a memorial sculpture of Hank the chimpanzee in a 2015 photo.

The placement of news articles on Page A16 in the July 6, 1969, edition of the Chattanooga Times was random, but it held prescience of coming events.

One article trumpeted the success of Zooville, a new addition to the city's Warner Park, which was attracting more than 3,700 people per week.

"We are very pleased that Zooville is proving to be such a successful attraction," city Commissioner Steve Conrad said at the time. "The public response has been beyond our expectations."

The animal facility, the article noted, allowed people to be interact with, pet and feed a small variety of farm animals.

Elsewhere on the page were the results of the Lakeside Optimist Horse Show, which had been held at Champion Stables. Among those placing in the show were Darde Long, who had won second-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes in three categories while riding Dream Boy.

Within two decades, the lives of Long and the zoo facility would become inexorably tied and continue to be through today.

We present this premise because last week the Chattanooga City Council unanimously passed a resolution authorizing a new 50-year lease for the Chattanooga Zoo. The lease authorizes the zoo to pay the city $1 a year for rent on its roughly 14-acre parcel in Warner Park.

The city and the zoo had been operating under an 11-year lease agreement that would expire May 14. In that agreement, the city would give the zoo $1 for every $2 the zoo raised for capital improvements, up to $250,000 annually.

Long, president and chief executive officer of the zoo, the same Long whose horseback exploits were trumpeted on the same 1969 page as the article extolling the then-new Zooville, praised the agreement.

"We believe that the partnership between the Friends of the Zoo and the city of Chattanooga is by far one of the strongest and most beneficial partnerships in our community," she said in an emailed statement to the newspaper. "The zoo has continued to grow and prosper under the leadership of Friends of the Zoo, and each new program, improvement or exhibit creates an even more valuable resource for both local community members and those traveling to Chattanooga."

But the zoo's prospects weren't always so bright.

The city, as it did in 1969, continued to operate Zooville, but what was written in the newspaper in 1980 as a humorous "bright" about the zoo showed the lack of true interest the city had in getting into the national shift toward natural habitat exhibits and conservation education.

It seems the deer at the zoo had four offspring, but the city had no way of caring for them. City Commissioner Jim Eberle said he'd been given an offer to buy them — at $25 apiece — and he made the deal. Asked by a reporter who bought them, he didn't know but said "I got the city a hundred bucks for some deer we didn't need surplus deer."

Asked what the buyers were going to do with the deer, the commissioner again said he didn't know. What if they barbecue them? he was asked. Realizing that might not look so good for him, he left to make a phone call. A few minutes later, he returned saying a woman on Signal Mountain had bought the deer and would keep them on a five-acre tract. And, he said, "she isn't going to barbecue them."

By 1985, visitors to the zoo began writing letters to the then two daily newspapers complaining about "sickly, lifeless" animals and cramped cages, about animals whose "sad" demeanors could be seen in their faces, about animals with matted hair and eyes and a "cruel" existence, and about hungry, scared and lonely animals. One letter even suggested the city close the zoo.

Later that year, Long, who had attended Auburn University and been an assistant at an animal clinic on 23rd Street for three years, was named zookeeper.

"I am excited about the job," she said at the time. "I am going to work with [nonprofit] Friends of the Zoo, and we are going to make some changes, some improvements."

Eventually, she moved the zoo toward accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, steered it into nonprofit status and directed plans to facility renovations and education.

A zoo master plan was adopted in 1993, accreditation achieved in 1998 and the master plan updated in the early 2000s. Since then, multiple exhibits have been created, the zoo expanded, and the animal diversity increased to the likes of giraffes, meerkats and anteaters.

The constants have been Friends of the Zoo and Long, who has now headed the organization for nearly 37 years and whose longtime love of animals — evident even when Zooville was a Warner Park newbie — has guided the zoo to become one of the city's top attractions.

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