For a series of 'Then & Now' looks at the Cincinnati Zoo through its 140-year history, scroll to the bottom of the article. To change time in each interactive image, just click and hold the white circular “slider” tool at the center of the photo. Then move the slider left and right to see “before” and “after.”
CINCINNATI -- One of the Tri-state’s most well-known landmarks is celebrating a historic milestone.
On Sept. 18 – 140 years ago – the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden opened its gates to the public. The zoo will mark the day by hosting its gala fundraiser, Zoofari, on the same night.
To get an insider’s peak into the zoo’s history, director Thane Maynard guided WCPO on a trip down memory lane through what was once the little zoo on the corner of Vine and Erkenbrecher.
In 1875, the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens opened its gates to the public. It is second only to the Philadelphia Zoological Gardens, which had opened 10 months prior. Maynard explained that the zoo fell much into founder Andrew Erkenbrecher’s vision of a German-style zoo located in the heart of the city with beautiful, expansive gardens and naturalistic animal exhibits. Erkenbrecher had scouted out the perfect location: 67 acres of land formerly known as Blakely’s Woods and, coincidentally, the stopping point for the Cincinnati streetcar.
“People might not know, but for decades the streetcar was pulled by horses and not by a motor – big draft horses,” Maynard said. ”The zoo has a connection there, too, because we own a structure on Vine Street named the City Barn. It’s an old three-floor building, and that’s where they kept the horses that pulled it.”
But the zoo’s inextricable connection to the streetcar eventually became its undoing, Maynard said. The venue was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1917 after the invention of motorcars, mainly because the zoo’s largest shareholder – and owner of the streetcar, the Cincinnati Traction Company – could no longer afford to support the facility. But two of Cincinnati’s wealthiest and most iconic women came forward to save the zoo from ultimate demise. Those women were Mary M. Emery and Anna Sinton Taft.
“They bought the zoo for $250,000, which with inflation today would be over $160 million,” Maynard said. “So they saved the day, and on the zoo went."
The zoo rebounded Cincinnati-style with a head-first Pete Rose slide, Maynard said, going on to set precedents for others to follow. In the 1930s, he said, the facility became the innovative leader for other zoos in the nation after hiring renowned German architect Carl Hagenbeck.
"That was a great leap from the old-style Victorian, mostly curiosity-based thing into bigger outdoor exhibits and bar-less exhibits,” he said. “We were the first zoo with an outdoor monkey island and outdoor exhibits for our hooved animals that are still there today."
Besides setting trends zoologically, the Cincinnati Zoo distinguished itself culturally by hosting an array of events, most notably as the home of the Cincinnati Opera for 53 years, from 1930 to 1973.
Ironically, Maynard said, the former open-air venue was replaced with what is now Gibbon Islands (the gibbons being the world’s loudest mammals).
During the height of the venue’s popularity, he said, many famous opera singers graced the zoo’s stage.
“Beverly Sills said it was her favorite place to sing because the animals sang along,” he said. “The seals would sing and the birds would fly in. I guess it was pretty amazing.”
Moving into the modern era, Maynard said, the zoo made great strides in the late 1970s, opening its wildly popular outdoor gorilla exhibit and a multi-award-winning insect house (the first of its kind). The zoo’s commitment to education and conservation became even more apparent in the ’70s with Procter & Gamble’s construction of the Education Center, a milestone for Maynard himself. He got his start at the center fresh out of grad school in 1977.
“Since that time, we’ve built an education center four times that size,” he said. ”We have 13 classrooms, a full-time high school; 11,000 kids spend the night. So we made this commitment to education in earnest 40 years ago and out of that a better understanding of conservation and the role it plays.”
In the mid-70s, the zoo earned the title “sexiest zoo” from Newsweek magazine recognizing record-breaking births of rare and exotic species including gorillas, white tigers and rhinos, Maynard said. More than four decades ago, the births of baby gorillas Sam and Samantha put the zoo squarely in the national spotlight. Today, Maynard said, they’ve come full circle as 45-year-old Samantha now shares space with the zoo’s newest addition, baby Elle, the 50th gorilla born at the zoo.
In 1981, the zoo’s conservation effort took form as CREW (Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife), a groundbreaking research group known for, among many achievements, cryopreservation of select plant and animal embryos, eggs and sperm. Even today, CREW is one of three premier research facilities in the country, Maynard said, the San Diego Zoo and the National Zoo.
“The others are extremely well-funded zoos – San Diego’s zoo budget is 10 times the size of ours,” Maynard said. “The National Zoo in Washington D.C. … is funded by the federal government. To play at that level is pretty amazing for a little zoo on the corner of Vine and Erkenbrecher.”
Last year, the zoo commemorated the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon, which died on the site in 1914. Maynard explained that this type of extinction exemplifies the fragility of every species as passenger pigeons once darkened the skies by the thousands in the Midwest.
While many scientists see species survival beyond repair due to climate change, Maynard said the zoo’s most important role is delivering a message that there is still hope.
“The trouble with that thinking is it doesn’t encourage anyone to get involved, and it declares defeat way too soon,” he argued. “There’s a lot to be hopeful for and there are good role models of what can work. Bald eagles – there were over 200 nests in the state of Ohio last year; there were zero nests in 1977. The peregrine falcon is back in eastern North America, the great wolf is back in the Northern Rockies, the California gray whale is back in the Pacific Coast of North America. There are many species that are making a comeback.”
In 1987, the zoo earned the designation of Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. And while the years have yielded a number of changes, Maynard said, much has remained the same. He noted the one-time monkey house, now the reptile house, recognized as the oldest zoo structure in America.
Most of all, he said, the zoo still represents its original founder’s vision: a place to see animals in their natural environment, a beautiful, expansive garden and a place for people to meet for cultural events.
"The zoo really plays a part in people’s lives in this town,” Maynard said. “I can’t tell you how many people tell me, ‘I went on my first date at the Festival of Lights,’ or ‘I asked my wife to marry me when I was at the zoo,’ or ‘I remember taking my grandchildren there’ – life-changing things. And that’s what we always hope to be: an integral part of the fabric of Cincinnati and Cincinnati families’ lives.”
The zoo's Vine Street entrance in the 1930s during the wildly popular 'Food Show" compared to the zoo's main entrance today, which still resides at the corner of Vine St. and Erkenbrechr St. Photos by CZBG and Christine Charlson.
A 1950s view of the back of the opera house compared to today. The area is now home to Gibbon island. Photos by CZBG and Christine Charlson.
Sea Lion Pool
A keeper from the 1900s feeds a sea lion in the first photo, In the second photo, Sea lion Duke strikes a pose at the feeding pool today. Photos by CZBG and Christine Charlson.
Swan Lake in the 1900s compared to today. The lake remains mostly unchanged, occupying the same space as it did more than a century ago. Photos by CZBG and Christine Charlson.
The 1937 tiger grotto set a trend as one of the new-style open air exhibits without bars. Today's cat canyon still has the open air style, but allows visitors an up close experience. Photos by CZBG and Christine Charlson.
From Parking Lot to Africa
In the 1950s, cars occupied this prime piece of land. Today the area is giraffe ridge, part of the zoo's Africa exhibit. Photos by CZBG and Christine Charlson.
The monkey house, now the reptile house is the oldest existing zoo building in America. The building today is relatively unchanged from the outside and listed on the historic registry. Photos by CZBG and Christine Charlson.
A postcard from the 1900s shows the zoo's aviary/bird cages. Today, the aviary is now part of the zoo's extensive botanical garden, home to thousands of local and exotic plants and flowers. Photos by CZBG and Christine Charlson.