Zoo has evolved greatly over 74 years

Black bear swimming at the Montgomery Zoo - Photo by Melissa Parker
Black bear swimming at the Montgomery Zoo - Photo by Melissa Parker

Montgomery, AL – In 1935, a group of animals were housed at Oak Park, Montgomery’s first public park. There were monkeys, bears, alligators, deer, and a pair of lions; one purchased from a zoo in Arizona and the other a gift of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Also located there were two small trains, a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel, and a swimming pool. It was officially called Oak Park Zoo.

In 1952, Melissa Reed, an employee of Ringling Brothers and Montgomery native, sent a newborn lion cub to her uncle, then Montgomery Mayor William “Tacky” Gayle. Molasses, as the cub was called, lived with the mayor at his home on Gilmer Avenue. She would ride with the mayor in his car to City Hall. When the cub got too big to be around the mayor’s home, he donated her to the Oak Park Zoo.

When Oak Park closed in January of 1959 due to segregation being ruled as unconstitutional, the zoo animals were either given away or sold. Molasses was given to the Birmingham Zoo. The park reopened in 1965, but the city began to seek out another site for the zoo.

The current location of the Montgomery Zoo, south of the Northern Boulevard, between Lower Wetumpka Road and Coliseum Boulevard, was opened in 1972 as a six acre facility. The opening was scheduled for 1971, but was delayed because the zoo’s first director was killed in an automobile accident just 37 days after accepting his post. The animal collection, at this time, consisted of 84 species acquired mostly as gifts from individuals and from other zoos.

There was no organization or theme and large chain-link paddocks housed antelopes and deer; grottos, chain-link cages and wire cages held large carnivores, primates, and birds; and a group of chimpanzees lived in a heavy barred exhibit. Other birds were exhibited in a waterfowl pool and a walk-through flight cage.

In 1984, with the help of the Montgomery Area Zoological Society, funds were raised for the zoo to be expanded to forty acres, and a geography based-theme was created. In 1990 a new zoo director was hired to oversee a master plan for a new zoo and construction began.

In September of 1991 the new forty acre zoo was open to the public. Five continents with barrier-free, state-of-the-art exhibits provide visitors with exciting educational and interpretative opportunities throughout the zoo.

Since 1991, new exhibit construction and growth has been substantial, and in that same year the zoo became an independent City department, thus leaving the supervision of the Parks and Recreation Department.

The zoo has undergone more than $6 million in construction and development and the acreage has increased by nearly 700 percent. The 27,000 square foot Mann Museum Wildlife and Natural History Museum was added, plus an Old World aviary, and a North American river otter habitat.

All 5,980 pounds of a bull elephant named Sdudla (African name meaning “sturdy” or “stout”) came to the zoo in 2006, joining the three African Elephant cows (Mary, Tina, and Star) who were already there. Mary died in August of 2008 after giving birth to a male African calf. She was 23 years old.

In October of 2007 a male Indian rhino was born to Jeta, a six year old female on loan from the San Diego Wild Animal Park. He was named Rocky and weighed in at a hefty 130 pounds. A month later, Tina, an African elephant, gave birth to a female weighing 247 pounds. Five months after birth the baby was given the name of MaKena, which means “Happy One” in Swahili, an African language.

The newest attraction to the zoo is the children’s playground with several slides, a climbing ladder, a log roll, and zip wire. Its design also provides developmental needs of children with disabilities.

Article by Melissa Parker

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