Putting on a Show
"We feel that by bringing these fine animals into the zoos, man and the animals both benefit. Man gains a better understanding of his fellow creatures, and this in turn benefits all of the animals of the wild kingdom." -Marlin Perkins, Saint Louis Zoo Director, 1962-1970
On Stage & Screen
George Vierheller, the Zoo's first and longest serving director, brought a kind of showmanship to the Saint Louis Zoo that wasn't found at most zoos. One of the primary ways Vierheller created a Zoo that was labeled by Life magazine "the most entertaining ever known in the U.S." was through a series of animal shows.
The elephant, lion and chimp shows drew thousands of visitors and were shown in newsreels in movie theaters around the world. Each season's shows would receive full-page previews in local newspapers. Retirements and deaths of animal stars were reported like those of any celebrities. And visiting dignitaries from Red Skelton to Babe Ruth came to see the performers.
Off the Main Stage
Not all the Zoo's animal stars appeared on the stage. A pair of pandas, a python who refused to eat, and an elephant seal and a friendly walrus also entertained visitors.
When Happy and Pao Pei pandas arrived at the Zoo in 1939, more than 35,000 people greeted them. They were a rare sight indeed. At the time, only three other pandas were on exhibit in the United States. Director George Vierheller called the pandas the greatest attractions the Zoo had had up to that time.
Blondie the python refused to eat so zookeepers devised a way to force feed her. Never missing an opportunity to put on a show, Vierheller opened the monthly feedings to the public. The feedings were an immediate draw and in July 1936 attracted more than 5,000 spectators.
Although the feedings of another animal -- a 3,500 pound elephant seal named Moby Dick -- were also popular, the crowds were scarce when the weather turned cold. Vierheller attempted to bill the winter feedings as "the coldest show in the world," but the showmanship wasn't enough to entice many visitors to brave the frigid temperatures.
Siegfried, the Zoo's first walrus, was another gentle giant. Siegfried was known for his curiosity and playfulness. He would "suck his thumb" by holding his flipper in his mouth, throw a ball out of his tank and spout water at visitors. He weighed 190 pounds when he arrived as a pup in 1961 but would eventually weigh between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds.
King of Them All
Thousands of animals have called the Saint Louis Zoo home, but none have been as beloved as Phil the gorilla who arrived in September 1941. It would have been difficult then to guess how popular -- or how large -- the small gorilla would become.
Phil, weighing 26 pounds at the time, was one of four gorillas to come to the Saint Louis Zoo from French Equatorial Africa (now Cameroon) in 1941. It was Phil who captured the attention of St. Louis and the nation. In September 1954, Life magazine ran a multi-photo spread about Phil, headlined "A Rising Young Gorilla."
Much of the attention came because of his size. Phil was heralded as the biggest gorilla in the United States, though Director George Vierheller may have employed a showman's poetic license when estimating Phil's weight, variously reported as 550-776 pounds.
No matter his size, Phil held a big spot in the hearts of St. Louisans. It was his playfulness that endeared him. Phil was known as a practical joker who liked to rip off the shirts of zoo keepers and splash water at visitors who came to see him. "Unlike many gorillas...Phil is playful, keeps busy swinging on trees made of welded pipe, takes plunges in his pool. He also enjoys throwing an old tire at his cage bars to scare onlookers silly," Life reported.
When Phil died on December 1, 1958, newspapers ran front page obituaries, and families around St. Louis mourned his loss. "He was one of my great pals," said Vierheller. It was a sentiment shared by many.
Marlin Perkins became a regular feature of many American living rooms when his Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom premiered in 1963. By 1974 more than 34 million people were watching the adventures of the Saint Louis Zoo director and his side-kick Jim Fowler.
How the Shows Changed
During Zoo Director Charlie Hoessle's tenure, Hoessle oversaw some of the biggest changes in the Zoo's history -- the phasing out of most of the animal shows, the development of more naturalistic habitats, and the creation of the Education Department. The Zoo's show philosophy has evolved in response to a deeper understanding of the animals' complex social needs. Gone are the costumed characters performing behaviors without context to their natural history. The emphasis has shifted to maintaining animals in appropriate social settings and using live animal demonstrations to promote respect for animals.Today's Sea Lion Show and Children's Zoo shows continue the show tradition under this new philosophy.
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