© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Curious Cbus: What Is The Early History Of The Columbus Zoo?

Aerial photo of the Columbus Zoo taken in the 1940s.
Columbus Zoo & Aquarium Collection
Aerial photo of the Columbus Zoo taken in the 1940s.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is one of the largest zoos in the United States with 588 acres of land. They care for over 10,000 animals and around 600 different species. The Zoo also manages The Wilds, a 10,000-acre conservation center and safari park in eastern Ohio.

Though the zoo has earned an esteemed reputation around the world, it has also been caught up in two recent scandals. CEO Tom Stalf and CFO Greg Bell resigned from the zoo on June 2, 2021 after a Columbus Dispatch investigation revealed misuse of assets.

Also, a new documentary, The Conservation Game, alleges that the traveling zoo program used disreputable animal vendors to acquire big cat cubs, and returned the animals to these vendors after they grew too big to take on the travel shows. The zoo acknowledged the use of vendors after it was made public, and stated that they would no longer work with the vendors mentioned in the documentary.

Recent controversy aside, the Columbus Zoo remains a popular destination in central Ohio with a history dating back nearly a century. One listener wrote into WOSU's Curious Cbus to ask: When was the Columbus Zoo founded and who started it?

The Columbus Zoo was first opened in 1927. It was called Riverside Park and was located on the O'Shaughnessy Reservoir. The park was set on a 21-acre tract of land with only a handful of species to display.

“At this time, it was more of a menagerie than a zoo,” said Dr. Michael Kreger, vice president of conservation and sustainability at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, who is well versed in the zoo's history. “There was no higher mission for the zoo like we have today.”

 Columbus Zoo's children's zoo, Zooligans, in the 1930s
Columbus Zoo Library
Columbus Zoo's children's zoo, Zooligans, in the 1930s.

The driving force behind this new entertainment venue was Harry P. Wolfe, prominent businessman and publisher of The Columbus Dispatch. When Wolfe and then-Columbus Mayor James Jay Thomas were on a business trip in St. Louis, they visited the St. Louis Zoo and Wolfe decided that a zoo was exactly what Columbus needed.

Wolfe lobbied for the start of a zoo in Columbus upon their return. The city turned him down the first time he asked in 1920 saying that they didn’t have a space for the zoo.

Wolfe had started something in the community, however, and the city kept receiving exotic animals as gifts for the zoo before they even had a place to put them. These animals were kept in the Franklin Park Conservatory until a more permanent place could be prepared for them.

In December 1926, the Columbus Dispatch held a Christmas party that featured six reindeer that Wolfe had bought and shipped in from Alaska. The reindeer were a hit with the locals. A Dispatch report from the time called it "an event that would live long in the memories of those who thrilled at the prancing, dancing steeds which for centuries had been part of the Christmas legend."

Wolfe gifted them to the city after the party with a long list of requirements for their upkeep. By this time, the city finally had a place to put the zoo.

They had set aside land for parks and recreation when building the O'Shaughnessy dam. This is the site the zoo still occupies today though it is much expanded.

The first building to be erected for the zoo was the Columbus Dispatch building which housed lions and tigers. It was finished in 1932. The reindeer had plenty of room to roam in the meantime, occupying a six-acre corner of the zoo.

Zooguide 1940
Columbus Zoo Library
Columbus Zoo guidebook from the 1940s.

Carl Evans was the first director of the zoo and under his leadership, it started to grow and gather more species throughout the 1930s. Admission was free at this time, and the city of Columbus paid the wages of the employees and for the upkeep of the grounds and animals.

The name of the zoo changed to the Columbus Municipal Zoo in 1937 and was no longer under the financial wing of the city. The zoo now needed memberships to bring in revenue. The membership fee of $2 (worth approximately $38 today) helped to pay for maintenance, building and expansion projects.

Earl Davis took charge of the zoo as the new director in 1943 and stayed until 1960. He was known to be a very hard worker.

“A zoo director expects to spend an eight day week on his job” was one of Davis’ favorite sayings, Kreger said.

It was far from a stress-free job, however, with the beginning of WWII in 1940, the zoo struggled to maintain membership and employment. The staff of the zoo was cut in half with many of the employees being called into service or to more essential jobs.

“People were given more responsibility and worked longer harder hours,” Kreger said. By 1946, the zoo was struggling to make ends meet, and was re-established under the jurisdiction of the city of Columbus in 1950.

The city managed the zoo until it gave up ownership in 1970 to the Zoological Park Association, Inc., a non-profit organization. The Zoological Park Association was founded in 1930 to help the zoo get more animals and organize new projects for zoo expansion.

This change was three years in the making. The zoo wanted to be under their own management for a couple of different reasons. This would distance them from sway under city politics, and allow them freedom from the Civil Service system of procedures. The city provided funds for the zoo out of their general fund until 1986. Today, the zoo gets about $19 million dollars a year from a Franklin County tax levy.

The Columbus zoo became a point of national interest in the 1980s when Jack Hanna started appearing on television to bring animal education to the forefront of the country’s mind. Since then, the zoo has seen a steady increase in membership and attendance generating around $84 million annually.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has undergone multiple changes over the years. It has struggled and it has thrived, but it was a man named Wolfe that got it all started back in the 1920s.