From Humble Nature Preserve to the “Nation’s Best Children’s Zoo.”
At the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, kids can get nose to nose with a goat, families can explore a misty jungle trail, and giraffes roam a vast grassy hillside. The zoo is internationally recognized for its innovative displays, award-winning animal exhibits, and well-manicured grounds. Local residents embrace the zoo as a great place to spend a sunny afternoon. But, this world-renowned zoo had humble beginnings.
In 1952, 54 acres were added to Fort Wayne’s Franke Park to establish a nature preserve. Animal displays included four monkeys, a black bear, three wildcats, deer, mountain goats, raccoons, foxes, porcupines, pheasants, ducks, swans, and an American eagle.
The popularity of the nature preserve encouraged local officials to consider building a full-fledged children’s zoo. By 1962, the planned exhibits included an Indian Village, a prairie dog colony, mammal dens, hoofed animal areas, and Noah’s Ark. The zoo would be run by a staff of three, with seven employees added during the busy summer months.
Plans in hand, the city’s Board of Park Commissioners appointed a 65-person Advisory Committee to foster interest in the zoo and raise money.
Fort Wayne rallied behind the project. Within three years, the committee raised $350,000 and secured $200,000 in donated materials and services.
By 1963, preliminary site work was underway. Local tradesman donated their time to install utilities while “zoo boosters” from age two to 12 collected pennies to buy an elephant. Community groups sponsored animal exhibits.
Earl B. Wells, then a young zoo director in Rochester, New York, was hired in 1964 to supervise the new Children’s Zoo – a position he held until his retirement in 1994.
On July 3, 1965, the $500,000 Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, comprising five and one-half acres and 18 exhibits, opened to the public. Attendance that first day was 6,000. From the start, the zoo was one the nation’s few self-supporting zoos, earning all revenue from admissions, rides, and concessions.
The Fort Wayne Zoological Society was established in 1966 as a nonprofit organization to assist in the development and growth of the zoo. To raise funds, the Society sold season passes to the zoo and sponsored member-appreciation events such as the “Zoo-Loo-Au” picnic, two services that continue today.
By 1967, Amos, a rare bonobo (pygmy) chimpanzee, was the zoo’s most popular resident. He rapidly became the zoo’s mascot and goodwill ambassador. For a time, Amos’ portrait graced the zoo logo.