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The Modern Indianapolis Zoo Part II: Finding its Stride and Growing Pains

Upon the opening of the zoo in April 1964, covered in this post from last August, the early children themed exhibits had been laid out in a series of detailed schematics which are available from the Ball State University Archives and evidenced the children’s zoo design. Many had storybook type themes or designs with features which would appeal to children. The design for the main entrance, which included the windmill and the stork in the chimney is shown below.

Indianapolis zoo history Washington Park entrance
Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation Landscape Architectural Drawings Collection, Ball State University

The penguin exhibit was located just inside the main entrance, (photo and design schematic below) although it had a mixed north and south pole theme, which included an igloo, and an actual "South Pole." However, it is not clear whether the igloo, a structure more associated with the northern latitudes, was ever built. A seal is also visible in the image below, which is from the Indianapolis Public Library’s Digital Indy Collection

Also, the zoo’s limited aquarium was located inside a large, sculpted whale, which sat on the edge of the largest of the three ponds on the zoo property. The whale, later known as Willie the Whale, was a common subject of photos and often appeared on postcards, like the one pictured below, also from the Indianapolis Public Library’s Digital Indy Collection.

Even as the fanfare from the grand opening of the Indianapolis Zoo in 1964 faded, plans were already in the works to expand the zoo beyond its original, and limited, “children” geared theme. A $1 million fundraising drive was completed, which helped cover construction costs for the zoo, and the admissions and memberships exceeded the zoo’s operating costs during the remainder of 1964. One of the first expansions using the money from the fundraising drive was the construction of a circular education center in late 1964. Another was the North American Plains exhibit, on the northwest side of the park. This section would hold bison, elk, and deer. These new parts of the zoo were included in the zoo’s planned first phase, the diagram for which appeared in Part I of this post. As the years would go by, the layout of the zoo would change as exhibits were added or removed, landscape matured, and other improvements were made. The image below shows the zoo in 1966. The three lakes/ponds, are visible, as is the waterfall structure from the large pond to the smaller pond at right. If you look closely, you can see the zoo train near the bridge over the waterfall.

Indianapolis Zoo history aerial image
Indianapolis News, August 10, 1966

Many of the original exhibits are visible in this image. The blue dot is the entrance, with the windmill, while the green dot shows the location of the small penguin enclosure. The red dot at the bottom is the Hoosier Barnyard (see image below), which featured a large red barn, and an animal encounter area. The purple dot was the small "Elephantrama" enclosure. On the far west side of the zoo, the top in this image, is the circular education building (magenta dot) and what was known as the "hooved animal" also referred to as the American plains area, marked with a yellow dot. This area would change often, and a variety of animals would be displayed in these enclosures over the years.

View of the Hoosier Barnyard, Willie the Whale, and the zoo train, not long after the zoo opened. Note the lack of landscaping and the rather stark appearance of the new zoo. Credit: Indianapolis Star Magazine, 1984

In 1966 the zoo received a significant animal donation, including the zoo's first big cats, from the collection of Ted O. Philpott, a local businessman who operated the American Art Clay Co., then located at 4717 W. 16th St. The animals included a pair of lions, tigers, cheetahs, and a Colobus monkey. The animals had been kept at the company’s west 16th Street location, which was across the street from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Philpott had passed away and his family wanted the animals to be kept in Indianapolis at the Washington Park zoo. The image below, from the Indianapolis Star, shows one of the donated cheetahs named Maggie in her enclosure at the zoo. Anyone who has spent time around animals can probably tell from her stance that Maggie is stressed in that image.

Continuing to expand its facilities and collection, in 1968 the zoo constructed a flight cage, which housed various exotic birds, and a giraffe house was completed in August of that year. Three giraffes called Indianapolis home by the end of 1968. The zoo planned for an elephant, and as noted in the Part I post, an elephant calf was being imported from southeast Asia at the time the zoo opened.

Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation Landscape Architectural Drawings Collection, Ball State University

However, the facilities for an elephant were limited. The space for elephants was a small tear drop shape display enclosure, not intended to mimic a natural habitat, but to allow close up engagement with visitors. As a result, the zoo cycled through elephants on a regular basis. When the elephants grew too large for the facility on east 30th Street, they would be sold or traded to other facilities and another smaller elephant, often a calf or juvenile, would be brought in. It was not until the mid-1980s that the zoo made arrangements to keep a maturing elephant on site at Washington Park, and this was in anticipation of the zoo’s impending move to a larger facility, which will be discussed later.

In the first few years of operations the zoo was normally closed during the winter months, and the interior quarters for animals were of limited capacity and sometimes cramped, although some of the animals were reported to have adapted to the cold and snow outdoors. This space issue would be the focus of expansion efforts in the coming years. Education outreach also continued during cold months, on site and with programs in the community, including visits to children in hospital.

In 1968, the zoo sought to expand its wintertime programming by remaining open nearly year-round and launching a new event. Under the slogan “It’s Great, it’s New, it’s Christmas at the Zoo,” zoo officials planned to turn the zoo into a “winter wonderland,” with the decoration of the various animal enclosures and landscaping. Local choirs would sing holiday songs at the event, and Earl Woodard, the director of the zoo, told the Indianapolis Star that “as many of the zoo’s animals as possible will be included in the outside displays.”

Images above from the December 14, 1969, edition of the Indianapolis Star Magazine

The inaugural Christmas at the Zoo only lasted one week, although 13,000 visitors attended the event. The event, which continues to this day, became an annual attraction for the zoo, and a major attendance draw during the slower winter months.

While the zoo put forward a positive face about its collection of animals and its operations, its annual reports would also detail a sometimes-long list of animal deaths each year. Some deaths were natural due to age or infirmity. Others were injuries, suffered by accident, inflicted by other animals in an enclosure, by negligence of staff, or by external forces. In the early years of the zoo, a common cause of death was attacks from neighborhood dogs which would gain access to parts of the zoo and kill animals. In 1968 dogs were noted to have killed several peafowl and turkeys. In 1970, a muntjac, a type of small deer, was reported to have been killed by dogs. Several animals that year also died of cold. In 1968, Tummy II, the zoo’s 2 year old Indian elephant, died due to an intestinal issue.

Another common cause of animal mortality was stress from transport to the zoo, or to new areas within the zoo. Often this death would be noted as “new arrival” which apparently indicated that the shock of the transport caused the death. Accidents were also common. In 1971, a giraffe died after falling in its enclosure, apparently breaking its hip. In another incident, another muntjac was somehow struck and killed by the zoo train. Birth mortality also occurred. In 1972, a Siberian tiger cub died not long after its birth, while three others also died of various infections. While a regular part of the zoo’s early annual reports, these lists detailing animal deaths appear to have been phased out of the reports by the late 1970s, although the curator would still make reference to notable losses in their collections.

Roselyn Bakeries was a sponsor for the zoo and would host "Zoo Days" during the summer. This page long ad appeared in the July 19, 1971 Indianapolis News.

At the close of 1968, zoo director Woodard looked to the future in the zoo’s annual report, and his hope to make the zoo a “complete zoo,” which he envisioned would include a multi-million-dollar aquarium, and what was described as a restaurant at the center of one of the animal enclosures. The zoo had 250,000 visitors that year.

The zoo’s animal collections continued to mature and expand. This was done through purchases, donations of animals, or trading of animals with other zoos. In 1970 three Siberian tigers were purchased, joining several others which were already housed at the zoo. One of these already established tigers gave birth. Martha, the zoo's lioness also gave birth to four cubs in May of that year. As of that year the zoo had nine species of felines including African lions, leopards, a jaguar, and pumas. Also, that year, a second train was purchased by the zoo in order to increase the usage of that already profitable venture. Both trains would operate on the weekends, ensuring less wait for the weekend crowds to enjoy the ride. An Australian Exhibit was also completed in 1971 and featured a pair of red kangaroos.

The zoo’s attendance remained steady, averaging around 250,000 visitors per year, while the attendance at Christmas at the Zoo increased significantly. Part of the zoo’s success was attributed to the close contact visitors had with animals. Indeed, many of the animal enclosures were designed with the intent that visitors be able to touch and pet the animals. Included among these was the elephant exhibit, discussed above, which encouraged close interaction, with limited fencing, and no moats one would expect in more modern zoos. The zoo’s 1972 annual report noted that the “informal approach to displaying animals is our greatest asset in that it allows the zoo visitor to become involved during his visit.”

The zoo continued to be operated without the assistance of taxpayer money, relying on admissions and sponsorships and grants from charitable organizations. The early 1970s saw the zoo embark upon an expansion, sometimes called “Phase II,” which was developed following a 1 ½ year study, and concluded in 1973, which established a Master Plan for the zoo. This plan detailed the continued development along a “zoogeographical theme,” which would have sections dedicated to animals from certain parts of the world. As an example, animals from the African plains would be housed together, or at least, near each other to create a thematic area. Additionally, new routing of visitors through the zoo were planned out as was improved concessions and restroom service.

However, the expansion plans came with opposition, and the neighborhood groups and residents who had opposed the zoo a decade before expressed their displeasure. In 1972, six neighborhood groups from the northwest side of the city near Washington Park had been advocating for city investment at the park and demanded the city "put people before animals," and oppose a part of the expansion plan which would see the zoo eventually expand by nearly 80 acres in Washington Park. The possibility of expanding the zoo's footprint in the park had been considered when the zoo first opened and was part of the original agreement between the zoo and Indy Parks.

Indianapolis Star, August 15, 1974

Arguing that they were "not antizoo, we are pro-people," the remonstrating groups accused the city of ignoring Washington Park, and not building promised improvements, despite the area around the park growing in population. Herman J. King, the head of the coalition which was called "Project Washington," attributed the population growth to the displacement of residents from the areas where the city's interstate system had been built, and from the area where residents were pushed out to make way for the IUPUI campus. After two years of discussions, a new master plan for Washington Park limited the zoo's expansion, while detailing various improvements which would be made at the park. An amended lease between Indy Parks and the zoo limited the northward expansion of the zoo, while allowing a small amount of southward expansion.

While these expansion discussions were being held, a major addition, the planned construction of a new big cat facility, was announced in 1973. Designed to hold lions and leopards, the new enclosure took on a more modern appearance and attempted to blend the enclosure into the environment while using landscaping and an “invisible barrier,” designed to minimize obstructions to visitors’ views, but keep the animals contained, a departure from early exhibits. The enclosure, funded through a $250,000 donation from the Lilly Endowment, was described by Roy Shea, zoo director, as a “butterfly design,” with a central housing building with enclosures on each side. A diagram of the planned enclosures is show below.

Indianapolis zoo history lion den schematic
Digital Indy, Indianapolis Zoo Collection, Indianapolis Public Library

The new facility was located on the northwest corner of the zoo, just north of the giraffe enclosure. A concrete pathway led to several viewing platforms, and the northern most point of the railroad also went past the enclosure. The drawing of the enclosure, above, appeared in the Indianapolis Star on June 27, 1973, and was little changed from the completed structure which opened to much fanfare in July of 1975. The vantage point of this diagram is looking to the southwest. The image below shows the observation areas for the new facility. While the quality of the image is poor, you can see some of the vertical wiring which was used to enclose the openings.

Excerpt from 1976 Indianapolis Zoo Annual Report

1975 was described as a good year by zoo officials in that year’s annual report, despite a continuing trend of lower attendance, and increased operational costs, which was partially attributed to “an inflationary economy.” Still not receiving any public money, the zoo relied upon sponsorships, and “the support of our city’s leading banks” to keep up operations. Late in 1975 the zoo increased admission in an effort to ease the financial situation.

These financial burdens, and zoo’s operating at a deficit, continued into 1976, when the zoo launched a public fundraising drive to steady its financial position. Once again, the Lilly Endowment stepped forward to assist, promising a $100,000 matching grant. The drive exceeded the $100,000 needed to receive the grant, with donations coming from individuals and numerous corporate sponsors. This effort was anticipated to eliminate the previous years’ deficit. Despite financial concerns, the zoo had grown beyond its original footprint. The aerial image below, about 10 years after the one at the beginning of the post, shows the zoo in 1975, with a guide to the various structures and enclosures. Note the lion and leopard enclosures (Numbers 14 and 15) at the north end of the zoo.

Indianapolis News, August 26, 1975

1978 started out as a rough weather year for the zoo. While nearly 1,000 new memberships were obtained during the course of the year, the weather in the early parts of the year had a dramatically negative impact on attendance. The main event was the Blizzard of 1978, which hit Indianapolis in late January of that year. Luckily, the zoo was not very busy at that time of the year for the lost attendance to matter. However, the blizzard impacted the school field trip traffic later in the spring, a reliable source of income for the zoo. Because of the days schools missed due to the blizzard, the zoo’s annual report indicated that the makeup school days were being made on traditional field trip days instead, thus depriving the zoo of its early season flow of field trips.

Once the weather improved, and the snow thawed, attendance began to improve, helped by the acquisition of a new baby elephant during the summer. The “slack months” from September to December of that year saw improved attendance due to the birth of two tiger cubs and a giraffe, in addition to the still popular Christmas at the Zoo. In the end, the zoo exceeded its attendance from the prior year, with nearly 250,000 visitors.

In his statement in the 1978 report, zoo director Roy Shea noted that the zoo’s board had authorized “a thorough study of the zoo and its community in order to determine what the zoo’s future should be. This study was to be used to make “realistic decisions…regarding the future growth of the zoo.” While a benign statement at the time, it foreshadowed significant decisions being considered in the next few years regarding the future of the zoo, and a reevaluation of the Master Plan established in 1973. The zoo’s limited size, facilities, and lack of space to expand, were issues that, although sometimes not obvious, were alluded to in brief mentions in annual reports and newspapers. And speaking of limited size, the zoo also welcomed a new 2-year-old elephant, donated by an anonymous "friend of the zoo."

Zoo Newsletter, Vol. 6, Nov.-Dec. 1978

Also in 1978, the zoo launched an Adopt an Animal program which allowed members of the community and business to essentially sponsor an animal, and as noted in the 1978 annual report, help underwrite cost for food, vet care, and medications. The program brought in $18,400 in 1978, although that was still only half the annual cost for food and medical care for the zoo. Referred to as the "Animal Parents Club," the zoo's newsletters would detail the names of those who had 'adopted' an animal, as shown below, and a large display at the zoo itself identified who had adopted which animals.

Zoo's Letter, Vol. 18, No. 5, September-October 1978, Digital Indy, Indianapolis Public Library

Also in the late 1970s, attendance at the zoo had leveled over the previous few years at around the 250,000 level. Mel Perelman, president of the Zoo’s board, noted in 1979 that attendance at the zoo had plateaued, and that to maintain an “upward trend line…facility improvements and new exhibits are essential.” This, and the limitations on the zoo's expansion in the park, may have contributed to the need for an evaluation of the future of the zoo. The zoo’s bi-monthly newsletter detailed this renewed 5-10 year look to the future in the May/June of 1978 issue, and also noted that the city of Indianapolis was undergoing an “exciting period of development” in the downtown area, with a focus on conventions, and bringing visitors into downtown. The newsletter stated that “[t]he Indianapolis Zoo is eager to be a part of this exciting time in Indianapolis’ development. Our revised Master Plan will enable us to meet the demands of the future.”

A zoo consultant, Zooplan, Inc., was hired in 1979 to conduct this the zoo’s future growth study. This “Tuning Study” determined that the Indianapolis area could support a larger and “re-themed” zoo, and that the long-range growth of the zoo would be better pursued at a location that was higher profile and more visible, and with better accessibility than Washington Park. As reported by Perelman in his 1979 annual report message, the zoo’s board accepted these findings and were considering a move to a new location. Perelman also acknowledged that such a move was at least 5 years in the future, and that the zoo must still “provide an attractive, interesting, well-maintained zoo” during this time.

Enhancements did continue, as 1979 saw the combination of the zebra and Eland (a type of large antelope) enclosures to create an African Plains type of exhibit in the hoofed animal area, and in 1980, funds from the Lilly Endowment were used for a “Re-Zoo-venation” of which renovated older enclosures, structures, and landscaping and added new exhibits, further pushing the zoo away from the children’s zoo concept which had been established at its founding. The railroad track for the zoo train also had to be replaced, nearly 18 years since the Union Rail employees had laid them.

In 1980 the search for a new site began to move forward more rapidly, and the zoo identified the site of the new White River State Park on the Westside of Indianapolis along the White River. The proposal for the White River State Park was developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the purpose of establishing a state park and recreation space on land along Washington Street, between the river and West Street in downtown Indianapolis. A portion of the park was also on the west side off the river, north of Washington Street.

Indianapolis News, Sept. 15, 1980

Under a headline that read "Zoo Probably Will Move," on May 7, 1980, News columnist Daivd Mannweiler reported that "[a]fter months of rumors," the zoo had confirmed it would "probably" move to White River State Park. Mannweiler called the revelation "surprising" since some zoo board members had been against it, although he also noted that the Lilly Endowment, a longtime supporter of the zoo, supported the move to downtown. Mannweiler interviewed Roy Shea, zoo director, and asked him whether the planned move was a "pipedream." Shea responded in the negative and stated that "[f]rom all the indication we can see, Indianapolis would like to have an outstanding zoo, maybe not necessarily the largest in the world, but one of the world's best." On September 15, the Indianapolis News reported that the zoo's executive committee had sent a letter to the Park Commission indicating a willingness to negotiate over a location. On September 16, 1980, when the Indianapolis Star reported that the White River State Park commission was considering the proposal to move the zoo to state park property. The story noted that the zoo’s board was interested in the move, although the Park Commission had not yet taken a position on the proposal.

Considering the difficulty in finding a large enough site for the original zoo back in the late 1950s, the new development of White River State Park provided a unique opportunity. A large swath of land, minutes from the downtown core, and in need of an anchor attraction. Plans for the zoo, and the park as a whole were developed over the next year. Part of the plan included the rerouting of Washington Street south of its original line, in order to take the road south of the proposed zoo. A consultant hired by both the zoo and the park commission analyzed the proposed zoo move.

Finally, on June 21, 1982, the park commissioners and zoo leadership met at the Washington Park Zoo and announced that the zoo was committed to relocating to White River State Park. The zoo was the first significant element to commit to the park and was to occupy 60 acres on the westside of the river, on land which had once been occupied by street railway barns and Washington Park baseball. Field. 15 acres were set aside for parking.

The gears of progress moved slowly, Groundbreaking for the new zoo on the west bank of the White River took place on September 8, 1985. Attended by numerous elected officials, attendees were treated to dance performances, marching bands, and later, a hot air balloon ascension. The groundbreaking was to be done by various animals from the zoo, including elephants Ivory and Kubwa, although in the end the various politicians in attendance chipped in to help as well.

In the meantime, the Washington Park zoo continued to operate as plans for its successor were developed, and construction began. Even with the new zoo being planned, the old zoo still remained popular. In 1985, nearly 300,000 visitors came to the zoo. A new horse enclosure and a rebuild of a flight cage were also completed that same year. In 1986, the soon to be former zoo saw 325,000 visitors, a record number which may have been partially attributable to the excitement and publicity about the new zoo. Indeed, director Roy Shea noted in his Director’s Report in the 1986 annual report that “[o]ne of our primary concerns as we planned for the New Zoo was its effect on our present facility. I can’t tell you how pleased we are that we’ve been able to increase interest in the current zoo while, at the same time, whetting appetites for the next major zoo in the United States!”

Indianapolis Zoo Map, Indiana State Library Clipping File. 1986

As noted, the Washington Park Zoo was not sitting on its hands during this time. The lemur exhibit was rebuilt, and the zoo welcomed a koala, on loan from the San Diego Zoo, which at the time was one of only two zoos in the United States which hosted koalas. The red-carpet rollout for the koala, named ‘Blinky Bill,’ was grandiose, considering he would only be in Indianapolis for a one month limited engagement. However, his presence helped contribute to the significant increase in attendance that year. Images of Blinky's arrival are below, both from the William Hudnut Collection in the Digital Mayoral Archives at the University of Indianapolis.

In mid-1986 the new zoo project received a $15 million donation from the Lilly Endowment for use with the new zoo. By late December of that year, the new zoo’s administration building was completed, and staff made preparations to move operations to that site. Additionally, in September of 1986, the zoo launched its "Zoobilation" event, which would become an annual fundraiser for the zoo, and which is still held today.

In preparation for the opening of the new zoo, the Washington Park zoo was shuttered in November of 1987. Its last day November 1, saw 4,000 visitors to the zoo, taking advantage of a special ten cent admission price, and putting an end to the zoo’s 24 years at the site. Auctions of zoo paraphernalia, like signs, fixtures and other items allowed local residents to own a part of the old zoo. In discussing the brand new and state of the art facilities at the new zoo, the Indianapolis News noted that “[p]ortions of existing zoos were phased in during distinct design periods that went from stark buildings with rows of caged animals, to fancy grounds with massive architectural monuments, to the naturalistic environments…needed to maintain the integrity of the animals.” While not very old, the Indianapolis Zoo had gone through a similar evolution, moving from the small, rather stark exhibits with little landscaping in the early 1960s, to the more natural exhibits of the 1980s, like the big cat enclosure. These advancements would be continued at the new zoo.

The grand opening of the new zoo was on June 11, 1988. During the intervening several months, animals and staff were transferred from the Washington Park Zoo to the new location as the construction was finalized at the new zoo. The images above show the zoo's elephants, Kubwa and Ivory (both of whom are still at the zoo) and a lion being moved to the new zoo. These images came from the Digital Indy archive, although the documents which contained these images were not identified.

Unfortunately, one of the zoo's most prominent and longstanding boosters, Lowell Nussbaum, passed away in November of 1987, a few months before the opening of the new zoo. Nussbaum, who had used his position with the Indianapolis Star to push for the establishment of a zoo in the 1940s and 1950s, had continued to be involved by holding various board positions with the zoo. At his death, he was a board member emeritus. A nice overview of Nussbaum's involvement with the zoo can be read in this article from the Indianapolis Star by Will Higgins. By the end of 1988, the new zoo had recorded 863,000 visitors, in just about 6 months, more than doubling the best year for the now former Washington Park zoo.

Many of the facilities at the old zoo would remain in place for several years, as the city determined the next steps for the development of the zoo grounds, and Washington Park as a whole. The final part of this series of blog posts will explore the old zoo site as it is today.

Lastly, if you or your family have any photos of the old zoo that you would want to share, I would be happy to scan them and add them to this series of blog posts (with credits, of course). Also, if anyone has any pieces of the old zoo that they obtained during the auction referenced above, I would like to get photos of those items as well.


Zoo Newsletter, Vol. 6, Nov.-Dec. 1978, Digital Indy Online Archive, Indianapolis Public Library

Indianapolis Star: January 3, 1965, June 26, 1966, March 26, 1967, November 2, 1968, June 27, 1973, September 16, 1980. September 8, 1985, November 2, 1987, November 21, 1987,

Indianapolis News: June 3, 1966, May 9, 1968, April 14, 1974, August 15, 1974, August 26, 1975, April 13, 1978, May 7, 1980, June 21, 1982, November 2, 1987

Indianapolis Zoo Annual Statements: 1964-1987, The Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections,

The New Indianapolis Zoo in White River State Park: Case for Support:

Come Dig the New Indianapolis Zoo in White River State Park, September 8, 1985,

New Indianapolis Zoo to Reflect "The River of Life", Indianapolis Digital Mayoral Archives,

Indianapolis Zoo: Enjoy a Family Safari (pamphlet), Indianapolis Digital Mayoral Archives,

Blinky Bill Koala, July 14, 1986, Img. 8, Indianapolis Digital Mayoral Archives,

Blinky Bill Koala, July 14, 1986, Img. 11, Indianapolis Digital Mayoral Archives,

Indianapolis Dept. of Parks and Recreation Landscape Architectural Drawings, Ball State University, Washington Park Zoo Collection,

· The Entrance and Netherlands House Windmill

· The Penguin Exhibit, Antartica Snow Scene

· The Aquarium, A Landscape of Moby Dick

· The Elephant Exhibit, A Symbol of India

Cover Image: Welcome Indianapolis Zoo sign photograph, Digital Indy, Indianapolis Public Library,

Indianapolis Zoo Clipping Files, Indiana State Library

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