The Journal Gazette
Thursday, April 25, 2019 1:00 am

July 3, 1965: Fort Wayne Children's Zoo opens

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Several generations of Fort Wayne natives will now remember growing up with field trips and family visits to the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo.

But in the years before it opened, people wanting to visit a zoo had to travel – maybe they took in the animals in Indianapolis or Toledo. That changed at 10 a.m. July 3, 1965, when Fort Wayne Children's Zoo welcomed the public for the first time.

Under sunny skies, about 6,000 guests toured the zoo. Some were amazed to find there were no cages.

The zoo wanted to bring animals and visitors as close as possible. In many cases, they were separated only by a moat. As a Journal Gazette story noted the next morning, “The most confined 'animals' in the zoo were the small children strapped in strollers pushed by their parents.”

The $500,000 project in Franke Park was several years in the making. It featured mostly young animals which would be transferred to other zoos when they matured. New young animals would replace them. Exceptions included tortoises, llamas and birds.

On opening weekend, animals included wallabies, monkeys, a prairie dog burrow and rabbit mound, an anteater, a red fox, bear cubs, an iguana, a sloth and raccoons. A “contact area” allowed visitors to get up close and personal with goats, deer, calves and burros.

At a preview event that week, Fort Wayne Convention Bureau director Dean Philips told the assembled donors, workers and city officials, “Your only reward will be the smiles on children's faces. You'll be glad you gave.”

Admission to the zoo was set at 25 cents for anyone 15 or older and 15 cents for those younger. Babies were admitted for free.

A large “talking” frog greeted visitors with a history of the zoo. Sound familiar? Director of communication Bonnie Kemp says she believes the current talking frog, Croaky, is the original. His voice was provided by the first zoo director, Earl Wells.

A year after its opening, the zoo was getting ready to set a milestone as it celebrated its anniversary: It was expecting to welcome its 250,000th visitor that weekend.

Compare that to 2017 when regular-season attendance topped 600,000.

History Journal appears monthly in print with additional items weekly on The Journal Gazette's website. To comment on items or suggest dates and topics, contact Corey McMaken at 461-8475 or



These stories appeared in The Journal Gazette.


“Zoo Previewed; Public In For A Big Surprise” by Jerry Huddleston (July 2, 1965)

Even though you will be expecting something nice, Fort Wayne Children's Zoo will amaze you.

As one man expressed it last night at a preview for major contributors, fund campaign workers, and city officials:

“Somehow you don't expect a city of Fort Wayne's size to have a thing like this as nice as this. This is really something!”

The half-million-dollar Franke Park facility – although completion of parts is not scheduled until next year – will be opened to the public following a 10 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday.

At a summer in Franke's No. 1 pavilion for the 240 persons at yesterday's preview, Director Dean Philips of Fort Wayne Convention Bureau (and formerly director of the Indianapolis Zoological Society) spoke briefly. He introduced park officials and visiting zoo authorities.

The latter included Joe Bissionette, executive director of the Pittsburgh, Pa., Zoological Society; Dan Watson, director of the Indianapolis Zoo, and Phil Skeldon, director of the Toledo Zoo, long a favorite of this area's zoo enthusiasts.

“Your only reward,” Philips told contributors, some of whom gave thousands, “will be the smiles on children's faces. You'll be glad you gave.”

Park Board President Byron Novitsky, other park commissioners, Parks Supt. Martin Nading, Zoo Director Earl Wells and others involved in creating the zoo were kept busy saying “thank you” to a stream of congratulations.

The zoo is for youngsters of all ages. An attendant told three senior previewers that children, if accompanied by a parent, would be permitted to enter some of the enclosures to feed the animals.

“I'll be the mother,” one of the women declared to her companions. And in they went.

A few youngsters, not part of the preview crowd, came to peep through the fence.

“I could stay here all night,” one keenly interested 15-year-old was heard to say.

With a few exceptions – the 250-pound tortoises, the bigger llamas and some of the birds – most of the displayed wildlife represents animal “children” likely to be as fond of their young visitors as the children are of them.

The wallabies (kangaroo family), the fawns and some of the zoo's little folk are a bit skittish yet, but they'll get over it when children start feeding them the special foods to be available in nickel and dime dispensers. The animals are going to learn about kids – but best of all, vice versa.

When the animals begin to mature, they'll graduate to other zoos and more young animals will replace them here.

We're not going to spoil it for you by describing everything in detail. Go yourself and ride the train and the ponies and see the bear cubs and the monkeys and the little pigs and the brilliantly hued birds and the owl that says “meow.” Saturday. At 10 a.m.


“Eager Visitors 'Oh, Ah' Way Through New Zoo,” by Larry Allen (July 4, 1965)

A good sized crowd turned out under sunny skies yesterday for the opening of the long-awaited Franke Park Children's Zoo. As the sign painted in bold letters on the fence said, it is a children's zoo. But that doesn't mean that adults won't enjoy it almost as much as children.

One small tow-headed boy stood watching the parrots for a moment, then suddenly exclaimed, “Hey, there's no cage.” He had discovered the best part of the zoo – the animals and the people are brought as close together as possible.

The new zoo is an attempt to bring the animals out from behind bars and the confines of a cage. In most cases, the animals and people are separated by a moat. The most confined “animals” in the zoo were the small children strapped in strollers pushed by their parents.

Since it is basically a children's zoo, the animals will be young ones, and as some of them mature, they will be transferred to other zoos and replaced here by other young ones.

Some of the children lined up outside the gates yesterday for three hours waiting for the zoo to open. Then they discovered they also had to wait through the ceremonies before they could go on inside.

As might be expected, much of the youngsters' attention was attracted to the monkeys on their “island.” But many of the more adventurous soon discovered that the real action was the “contact area” where the visitors and the animals are allowed to mingle freely.

In the contact area, goats, calves, small deer, and burrows subjected themselves to the endless pattings, stares, huggings, and ear pullings of many youngsters who were, perhaps, getting their first look at real live animals. The goats proved to be good hosts for their visitors, but most of the deer preferred to watch from the relative safety of a shelter in the pen.

Although one youngster had serious reservations about walking the gangway out to the “ark” in the pond, he was reassured when his father told him it couldn't sink because it was anchored on the bottom. Then when he was on board, he had to be restrained from jumping off for a swim.

Other attractions at the zoo include a prairie dog burrow, a rabbit mound, a pony ride, bear cubs, raccoons, a colt, two llamas, two immobile giant tortoises, an anteater, a rather lethargic red fox and a few other assorted animals.

Perhaps the most unusual animal in the entire zoo is the large, green, “talking” frog which greets visitors soon after they enter the gate. Perched on a barrel, it gives a brief history of the zoo, tells how it was built, tells how donations will be used, and urges the visitors to “have a nice leisurely trip through your zoo.”

There was one minor accident during the day. The miniature train came steaming out of the tunnel, jumped the tracks when it hit a switch, and came to rest with its cow-catcher bent around one of the posts in the train station. There were no casualties.


“Children's Zoo To Observe First Anniversary Sunday,” Sandy Thorn (July 1, 1966)

Sinbad, the unpredictable, but adorable 11-month-old chimpanzee of the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, absolutely refuses to conform to society's rules. He much prefers his nakedness to his latest role as the World's Best Dressed Chimp.

But then even Sinbad realizes that there are times when a fella has to dress up. And an anniversary celebration is one of those times.

The hairy non-conformist with authorized aid, departed his suffocating, barren cage in the zoo yesterday for a while, all-expense-paid shopping spree.

It all began nine days ago when Earl B. Wells, zoo director, had a man-to-man, heart-to-heart talk with the chimp. Wells explained that no matter what was customary in Africa, Sinbad was now in America and he had to dress up for the first anniversary celebration at the Franke Park Zoo.

At first, the chimp wasn't agreeable, but Wells finally persuaded him when he told him thousands would visit the zoo on Sunday, the anniversary.

J.C. Penney store in Southgate Plaza agreed to pick up the tab for the spree, and after a hectic, bizarre 45 minutes in the store, Sinbad emerged – handsome and well-dressed.

Within a matter of hours, he was named the best dressed of the chimpanzee world. After receiving anonymous phone calls, nine non-partial judges flew to Fort Wayne from all parts of the globe to bestow the coveted honor.

Judges included one polar bear, a peacock, a rhinoceros, two lions, a penguin, a chinchilla and two kangaroos. The tenth judge, a giraffe, was unable to make the trip because of a stiff neck.

Sinbad accepted the honor, although earlier he had screamed in terror and madness and underpants, shorts, a knit T-shirt and sweatshirts were forced on him.

He offered a subdued expression of complacency as a Penney's shoe salesman attempted to fit him. The socks went on easily. Then Sinbad's foot was measured and on went red sneakers.

The pretty red sneakers lasted just long enough for the African native to jump up and down once. Off they flew! The determined shoe salesman next tried white baby shoes. They not only fit perfectly, they stayed on!

Sinbad occasionally paused to get a refreshing drink of water and greet the many onlookers. He also performed various antics including a not-too-gentle swipe at a stuffed monkey.

Albert J. DeVold, Penney's manager, allowed Sinbad to stock up on underwear, shorts, long pants, sweaters, T-shirts, sweatshirts, terry-cloth jackets, an oversized hat and a book about bears.

Sinbad's favorite gift appeared to be his very own highchair! When the spree was over and he was bundled down with shopping bags, Sinbad remembered Wells not to forget the highchair.

The non-conforming, well-dressed chip was returned to Franke Park where he was scheduled for plenty of rest prior to Sunday's festivities.


“Another Milestone Draws Near For Zoo,” Sandy Thorn (July 2, 1966)

Sunday marks the first anniversary of the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo – destined to become one of the most successful community ventures in Fort Wayne history.

Another milestone in the young history of the Franke Park attraction will be reached on Sunday if good weather continues. By Sunday evening, a grand total of more than one-quarter million will have passed through the eight-foot-tall stockade admission gate to the zoo.

Since its official opening one year ago Sunday, the zoo has provided countless hours of pleasure for young and old alike. As the zoo goers wind their way past the many popular exhibits, the reactions from 70-year-olds are as unpredictable as the reactions of three-year-olds.

Hardly a person can manage a tour of the zoo without a smile or occasional chuckle.

Attendance during the initial yea was more than anticipated, according to Earl B. Wells, zoo director. He noted that the majority of zoo visitors are “returnees.”

The half-million-dollar facility which became a drawing board project back in 1962 and still continues to expand, has witnessed the addition of several exhibits since opening this Spring.

Included are the minah bird exhibit; the taper, named “Sesqui” for Indiana's Sesquicentennial; a model locomotive, from which youngsters can be photographed; a colorful and much-improved concession area and gigantic umbrellas for the patio tables.

Two of the major additions, as far as popular appeal is concerned, are Alex, the lion cub, and Sinbad, the chimpanzee.

Attractions which provided so popular last summer once again receive much attention. They include the cub bear exhibit, the monkey island, the contact area with frolicking billy goats, the pony rides, Noah's Ark and the ever-popular C.W. Kuhne Express miniature train.

Many of the animals have been changed in keeping with Wells' policy of featuring different young animals each year. Through his experience as director of the Rochester, N.Y., zoo, Wells found that the public enjoys watching young animals grow and develop.

It has been a successful year for the community endeavor, and to mark Sunday's anniversary, The Journal-Gazette has earmarked a contribution specifically for the occasion.


“Zoo Inhabitants Enjoy Birthday Cake, Frosting,” Sandy Thorn (July 4, 1966)

The Sandman was more than welcome last night at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo.

With tummies full of birthday cake and frosting, the zoo's inhabitants eagerly awaited closing time so they could enter dreamland.

One of the popular monkeys, an unpredictable fella aptly named “Bad News,” reportedly told Earl Wells, zoo director, that he enjoyed the festivities but couldn't go through such “carryings-on” more than once a year. Wells assured him he could rest quietly for another year.

Large crowds turned out in the 95-degree temperatures to enjoy the zoo's first anniversary celebration.

The fun really began when Sinbad the Chimpanzee, dressed in striped shorts and a striped T-shirt, and one-year-old Ed Rahe attempted to extinguish the one candle on the huge decorated cake. All was going smoothly, as neither Ed nor Sinbad knew what was happening, until Sinbad shoved his fist into the cake!

A few hectic seconds followed while Sinbad methodically spread the white frosting from his elbow to his shoulder, rubbed his ear with it and then licked his fingers! Wells, who removed the entertaining chip from the cake, and Jane Knettle, an attendant at the zoo, also were recipients of the sticky frosting as Sinbad clung to them.

Several of the animals never made the scene as the scorching sun caused them to find shelter or shade.

The heat didn't seem to affect the playful dwellers in the contact area as most of the calves, deer, billy goats and sheep were game for much frolicking in attempts to bribe youngsters into feeding them.

The three bears and Alex, the lion cub, also shared in the cake-eating spotlight. Alex, taken from his royal cage by attendant Mike McCord, romped on the piece of cake and finally gave out with a disgusted growl which Wells interpreted to mean that Alex prefers raw horse meat to cake!

Another attendant, Cark Beckman, had his share of troubles in feeding the cake to the bears. He finally threw the cake to them then allowed them to feed themselves from the tray. That was successful until one of the eager cubs unintentionally put his paw on the tray, tipped it and smacked one of the other cubs in the nose with it.

Colorful balloons, free train rides and clowns added to the success of the anniversary celebration. Attendance for the past year far exceeded the quarter-million mark, and yesterday proved to be a good beginning for the new year.

All of the animals were “tucked in” early so they will be raring to go again today. 

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