fort wayne zoo 50 years birthday

Zoo Announces 50th Birthday Celebration

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo turns 50 years old in 2015, and the entire community is invited to be part of the celebration.

“The zoo was built by this community, starting with the school children who donated pennies to build Monkey Island back in 1965,” said Zoo Director Jim Anderson.  “Since then, thousands of families and businesses have donated funds to create everything you see at the zoo.”  More than 20 million people have visited the zoo since it opened on July 3, 1965, and more than $32 million has been donated for capital projects.

“The zoo’s 50th Birthday Celebration is our way of thanking the community for five decades of outstanding support,” Anderson said.

To kick off the celebration, the zoo invites the community to submit photos of their families enjoying the zoo.  Photos from the 1960s and 1970s are especially needed, but all photos are welcome.  Submitted photos may be used in the zoo’s 2015 advertising campaign.  Fans may submit photos before February 28 by posting them to the zoo’s social media accounts, emailing them to, or bringing prints to the zoo, where they will be scanned and returned.

The 50th Birthday Celebration will continue all season long.  Highlights will include a “Happy Birthday to Zoo” Party on July 1 with performances by local youth choirs; a giant Birthday Card for zoo guests to sign; appearances by the zoo’s new Mascot at community events; partnerships with the Three Rivers Festival and Fort Wayne TinCaps; paw prints painted on roads leading to the zoo this summer; signs showing “Then & Now” zoo photos; a Nature Scavenger Hunt for kids; contests on social media; an expanded zoo history section on the zoo’s website; and more.  Commemorative merchandise will be available in the zoo’s Wild Things Gift Shop all season.

“The support of our community has made the zoo the world-class facility we are today,” said Anderson.  “We’re excited to share 50 years of zoo memories as we continue to grow the zoo for the next generation of kids and families.”

The zoo opens for the 2015 season on April 25.  The zoo’s 50th Birthday is sponsored by Sweetwater, PNC, Strahm Building Solutions, Do it Best, Centier Bank, and Mainstay Solutions.

Click here to see historical photos of the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.

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Zoo History Highlights:

  • July 3, 1965:  Zoo opens for the first time
  • 1976:  African Veldt opens
  • 1979:  Great Zoo Halloween opens (now called Wild Zoo Halloween)
  • 1987:  Australian Adventure opens
  • 1994:  Indonesian Rain Forest opens
  • 1995:  Orangutan Valley opens
  • 1996:  Tiger Forest opens
  • 2001:  Indiana Family Farm opens
  • 2002:  Sea Lion Beach opens
  • 2009:  African Journey (formerly the African Veldt) opens
  • 2014:  Phase 1 of the Australian Adventure renovation opens
  • 2015:  Phase 2 of the Australian Adventure renovation opens
  • 2016:  Phase 3 of the Australian Adventure renovation opens


Recent Zoo Accolades:

  • Travelers’ Choice Award, TripAdvisor, 2014
  • Best Family Attraction in Indiana,, 2014
  • Indiana’s #1 Gotta-Do Summer Attraction, Indiana Office of Tourism Development survey, 2012
  • One of the Nation’s Ten Best Zoos for Kids, Parents Magazine, 2009


Zoo Animal & Conservation Highlights:

  • Critically endangered Sumatran orangutan birth, 2014
  • Endangered red panda birth, 2014
  • One of only two zoos nationwide to house endangered Javan gibbons
  • Contribute more than $80,000 annually in conservation support
  • Innovative Kids4Nature program allows zoo guests to help direct zoo conservation funding
  • Z-TEAM Conservation Crew involves youth in local hands-on conservation programs
  • Participate in breeding and management programs for more than 90 endangered and threatened animal species and taxa through the  Association of Zoos & Aquariums
  • Named Northeast Indiana Sustainable Business of the Year in 2014


Community and Economic Impact:

  • A non-profit organization that receives no tax support
  • More than 20 million visitors since 1965; currently host more than 500,000 people per year
  • More than $22 million in economic impact annually
  • 95% of out-of-town zoo guests cite the zoo as their main season for travelling to Fort Wayne
  • Currently employs 71 full-time and 21 part-time employees year-round; additional 75 hired each summer
  • More than 30,000 school children visit the zoo annually
  • More than 35,000 people attend zoo education programs annually
  • 400 people donate more than 33,000 hours of volunteer time annually
giraffe fort wayne zoo

Our Very Own “Rock Star”

Did you know we have a “Rock Star” at the zoo?  That’s what Zoo Keeper Aim’ee Nelson calls Jelani the giraffe!  Other zoo staffers call him “The King of the Platform,” because  there’s no doubt who’s in charge when Jelani rests his massive head on the railing of the feeding platform.   “When Jelani comes up for lettuce everyone wants to feed him,” says Nelson.

Jelani celebrates his 16th birthday this week and just about every staff member, volunteer, and zoo guest has a fond nickname or special memory to share.  African Journey area Manager Amber Eagleson smiles when she talks about meeting him for the first time.  “I came to the zoo in 2000 when he was only two.  He was already friendly…and hungry!”

Eagleson has observed Jelani’s friendly demeanor year after year.  “He makes an impression on everyone.  When someone has worked in the giraffe barn, Jelani is the one they always remember.”

Eagleson shares a story from a 2003 celebration when a crowd gathered to sing “Happy Birthday” to the then 5-year-old giraffe.   “He started running around the exhibit and put on a big show.  No one was expecting it.”

Zoo guests are invited to Jelani’s sweet 16 celebration on Friday, August 1  from 10AM-3PM.  Some highlights include:

– Adding spots to a giraffe art piece

-Singing “Happy Birthday” and presenting Jelani with his “cake” at 11AM

– Trivia games

– Pin the tail on the giraffe

– A birthday card to sign

– A picture spot with a giraffe in his sweet sixteen car

– Coloring pages

You can visit Jelani and the rest of the herd seven days a week.  Lettuce is available for 1 token ($1) and when Jelani the hungry giraffe is on exhibit, he’s usually ready to eat.  “He lays his head on the platform railing until someone comes to feed him,” says Eagleson.  “We have to ask zoo guests to stay back a few feet because of his size and strength, but that doesn’t stop him from getting his lettuce.  He’s never full.”

Below is a gallery of some of Jelani’s memorable moments.  Click on the photos to enlarge:

Happy Birthday, Sea Lions!

The zoo’s California sea lions will celebrate their birthday this Saturday, June 14.  The festivities begin at 11AM and will coincide with the scheduled sea lion show.

Three of our sea lions – Fishbone, Grits, and Cassandra – were actually born on June 14.  (Legend’s birthday is on May 6.)  How does a colony of four aquatic mammals celebrate their special day?  With a “cake” and some water games!  Zoo keeper Nikki Finch is involved in planning the festivities.  “The sea lions will get a very special birthday cake made of fish and ice,” states Finch.  They will also perform behaviors and play in the water.  Zoo guests are invited to the party!

The sea lion show, which happens every day at 11AM and 3PM, is a guest favorite at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo.  Sea lions are known for their intelligence, and the zoo’s colony has the opportunity to showcase their smarts at the daily shows.  Fishbone, Grits, Legend, and Cassandra are trained to perform a variety of behaviors and seem to enjoy the attention from zoo keepers and guests.

The show is fun and energetic, but the zoo also hopes that guests will take an important message with them:  Our sea lions eat sustainable seafood and we can, too!  By choosing seafood that is harvested and farmed in a way that protects our oceans, we can make a big difference.  The zoo has partnered with Seafood Watch to help guests understand why sustainable seafood matters.  We even have a free app to help you make better seafood choices.    Stop by a show this summer to find out more, and be sure to wish the zoo’s sea lions a Happy Birthday on June 14!