This unique-looking, early 1960s structure is located at the entrance of the Sacramento Zoo. Photo by Lance Armstrong
Note: This is part three in a series regarding past and present details about the Sacramento Zoo.
As referred to in the last article of this series, the Sacramento Zoo has experienced many changes throughout the years.
The zoo became a much different looking place in the 1960s.
On July 26, 1960, The Sacramento Bee presented a proposed layout of the zoo under a major modernization and expansion project that had been then-recently approved by the city council.
The 21 sections shown on the illustrated layout were birds, aquatic birds, seals, small animals, otter, orangutan and gorilla, monkeys, gibbons, chimpanzee, open air grottos for tigers, lions and bears, cat cages, monkey island, field animals, alligators, reptile house, penguins, flamingos and non-flying tropical birds, bird house, entrance and concessions and new rose garden.
The initial phase of the zoo’s building project included the entrance structure and concessions building, a flamingo pond, five moat enclosed animal confinement areas and new animal cages.
The project’s second phase, which would be completed at a cost of about $90,000, included confinement areas for penguins and alligators and cages for monkeys, gorillas, reptiles and small animals.
Prior to the 1960-61 project, many animals were housed in wooden cages that had been constructed by Works Progress Administration laborers during the Depression.
Assisting with the reptile house, which would exhibit the zoo’s first snakes, was Kenneth C. Johnson.
In addition to serving as the director of the Sacramento Civil Defense Area, Johnson was one of the region’s most notable reptile experts and owned one of Northern California’s most extensive private collections of snakes.
The monkey island exhibit, which would be constructed by John F. Otto, Inc. (today’s Otto Construction), would allow zoo visitors to obtain a full view of its monkeys.
Among the monkeys that were transferred to monkey island upon its completion was Spooky, who had been a resident of the zoo since its opening in 1927.
In an update about the project, The Bee reported on Aug. 7, 1960 that $200,000 had been allocated by the city, while an additional $100,000 in contributions was being sought from the public. The latter sum would be used to modernize the old portion of the zoo.
It was also mentioned in the same Bee article that Emil A. Bahnfleth, president of the Sacramento Zoological Society at that time, announced that individuals donating $100 or more would have their names placed on special donors plaques at the zoo’s entrance.
Anyone donating $5 to $99 would receive an Honorary Z-B (“Zoo Builder”) certificate.
As for Bahnfleth, whose name was later memorialized through the naming of Emil Bahnfleth Park at 950 Seamas Ave., he never witnessed the opening of the expanded zoo, as he died at the age of 70 on March 30, 1961.
With the new, spacious zoo only two months away from the completion of its initial phase, The Sacramento Union, on April 9, 1961, ran an article, which included the following words: “The sumptuous new quarters are designed with an eye to convenience and animal comfort, and are a combination of sweeping, curved architectural lines, sharp, straight lines and blended landscaping that brings the creatures virtually into their natural setting and provides zoo visitors with a walk through the park.”
The annual ZooZoom 5k and 10k run fundraiser is featured in this 1987 advertisement. This year, the event will be held at William Land Park on April 14. Photo courtesy of Sacramento Public Library, Sacramento Room
The article also noted that the society’s campaign to raise $100,000 had reached the $41,000 mark.
While anticipating the opening of the newly improved zoo, which was designed by architect Douglas M. Kelt, the zoo’s superintendent, Anthony A. “Hank” Spencer said, “People don’t know what this means to me. I’m the kind of guy who is lucky enough to have his hobby and his work all wrapped up in one job. And think what it will mean to the animals. Oh, it’s a wonderful thing.”
In preparation for its reopening, the zoo was closed for the 10 days prior to its June 11, 1961 dedication, which would be directed by the city and the zoological society.
During that time, the animals were moved to their new locations.
The reopening of the zoo was a grand occasion that drew thousands of people, including special guests, state Senator Albert S. Rodda; Assemblymen W. A. “Jimmie” Hicks and Edwin L. Z’berg; Leslie E. Wood, chairman of the county board of supervisors; Milton Schwartz, chairman of the city board of education; Maj. Gen. Robert B. Landry, commander of the Sacramento Air Materiel Area at McClellan Air Force Base; Brig. Gen. Norman Callish, commander of Mather Air Force Base; and Col. Leo Tamamian of the Sacramento Signal Depot (later renamed the Sacramento Army Depot).
To present more people with the opportunity to visit the zoo during its reopening week and to bring awareness to the $100,000 Zoo Builders campaign, Mayor James B. McKinney proclaimed the week as Zoo Builders Week, and the zoo maintained longer hours, as it remained open until 7 p.m.
Later changes for the zoo during the 1960s included the redesigning and rearranging of animal enclosures.
A new master plan for continued improvements and another expansion of the zoo was approved by the city council on July 9, 1970. The master plan was the first of its kind in the zoo’s then-43-year-history.
A month later, the Sacramento Zoological Society adopted its docent program. The program has since grown to include about 1,400 volunteers, who donate about 34,000 hours of their time to the zoo each year.
In September 1971, the zoo experienced a major change, as William “Bill” Meeker replaced Spencer as the zoo’s superintendent.
Four years later, the zoo received accreditation by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums – today’s Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The zoo became a participant in the International Species Inventory System in 1979. The mission of ISIS is “to facilitate international collaboration in the collection and sharing of knowledge on animals and their environments for zoos, aquariums and related conservation organizations to serve institutional, regional and global animal management and conservation goals.”
The first ZooZoom, the zoo’s annual 5k and 10k run fundraiser, was held at William Land Park in October 1980. This year, the event will be held at the park on April 14.
Other events that have attracted visitors to the zoo during its history include the California Celebration multicultural day (May), the King of Feasts food and wine luau (June), Zoo Camp (June through August), the “Boo at the Zoo” Halloween event (October) and Holiday Magic (December).
Another highlight of the zoo occurred in 1983, when the zoo became involved with AAZPA’s Species Survival Plan for Siberian tigers, Asian lions and Sumatran orangutans.
In 1987, the zoo celebrated its 60th anniversary and zoo guests, 60 years old or older, were admitted into the zoo free of charge for the entire month of March.
During the 1990s, the zoo opened its Lake Victoria exhibit, Rare Feline Center, gift shop and office space structure and concessions and conference facility.
It was also in the 1990s when the Sacramento Zoological Society assumed complete financial and daily operational management of the zoo.
Zoo highlights of this new century have included the opening of the on-site Murray E. Fowler Veterinary Hospital and the Red Panda Forest, Australian Outback and Tall Wonders giraffe exhibits, the debut of the Conservation Carousel, and the zoo’s first Sumatran tiger birth.
In its 85th year, the now 14.3-acre zoo continues to serve its visitors through its mission to “(inspire) appreciation, respect and a connection with wildlife and nature through education, recreation and conservation.”