A Zoo Is Born
Photo from the Zoo archives
"There are two things a lively city needs -- a good zoo and a good baseball team." -George Vierheller, Saint Louis Zoo Director, 1922-1962
The World's Fair of 1904 in St. Louis brought with it a walk-through flight cage commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution. St. Louisans fought for it to remain in the city once the Fair concluded, and it would later become a cornerstone for the Zoo. The City of St. Louis chose to buy it for $3,500 (original cost to build was $17,500) rather than have it dismantled and sent to Washington, D.C.
The popularity of the bird cage during the World's Fair inspired civic leaders to build a real zoological garden in St. Louis. In November 1910, the Zoological Society of St. Louis was established. The founders formed the organization with the hope that a zoo would make the city more appealing for visitors and residents alike.
Looking for a Home
The initial excitement that surrounded the formation of the Zoological Society of Saint Louis soon faded as it became clear that establishing a new zoo in St. Louis wasn't going to be as easy as the Society's founders imagined.
The biggest obstacle? Agreeing where to put it.
Promoters argued for Forest Park. The land was available, the location was ideal, and the park already hosted a collection of animals. But not everyone was convinced. One of the biggest critics of the Forest Park location was the city's park commissioner who said a zoo -- especially its animal buildings -- could ruin the natural beauty of the park.
Other locations considered included Carondelet Park, Creve Coeur Lake, and Fairground Park, which was the location of the city's first zoo.
It would take three years of arguments before the issue was resolved. On December 2, 1913, Mayor Henry Kiel signed legislation creating a Zoological Board of Control, and giving it authority over more than 70 acres of Forest Park.
A Shared Mission
Although much has changed in the Zoo's 100-year history, its mission remains amazingly similar to the ideals expressed by its founders. An early booklet from the Saint Louis Zoo lists the following objectives:
- To establish and to co-operate with the City of St. Louis in maintaining a Zoological Park for the instruction and recreation of the people.
- To exhibit wild animals under favorable conditions.
- To encourage Zoological Research.
- To increase public interest in wild animals.
- To secure better protection of wild animal life, by educational methods.
When the Zoo was looking to purchase its first elephant in 1916, it turned to St. Louis schoolchildren for help. More than 6,000 children took part in a penny campaign that resulted in the purchase of a 35-year-old Asian elephant who had once been a circus performer.
Miss Jim would be her name, named after James Harper, president of the school board. To say the children were excited about the elephant's arrival would be an understatement. More than 17,000 onlookers watched as she was paraded through Forest Park. "Never was there a more enthusiastic gathering of schoolchildren," reported the St. Louis Republic. "They danced around the elephant all the way out calling her name and pointing out to each other which part of Jim they owned."
Miss Jim would remain popular throughout her 70-year life. In that time she gave rides to thousands of visitors of all ages.
A World-Class Exhibit
The Saint Louis Zoo earned attention from around the world when it opened its Bear Pits in 1921. The moated exhibit became only the second of its kind to be opened in the United States and was considered a model for zoos around the world.
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