The History of the Indianapolis Zoo
Indianapolis Zoo recently celebrated the 25th anniversary
of its move in White River State Park. The new Zoo officially
opened to the public on June 11, 1988. Read more about the
history of the new
Indianapolis Zoo. You can also find information
about the vision for an Indianapolis Zoo as well as the
history of the
Washington Park Children’s Zoo and
The concept for the Indianapolis Zoo first
emerged in the 1940s when newspaper columnist Lowell Nussbaum
began voicing his dream of establishing a zoo in Indianapolis.
Through his column “Inside Indianapolis,” which first appeared
in the Indianapolis Times and then in the Indianapolis Star,
Nussbaum campaigned for a zoo, spurring community leaders into
action. By 1944, he
and other founders had begun discussing potential sites for the
facility. Their ideal was that the Zoo would be supported by
admission, in-park sales, contributions and memberships, and
that still holds true as the Indianapolis Zoo is the largest
privately funded zoo in the country. Momentum for the Zoo slowed
during World War II, but Nussbaum and the other founders
persevered by collecting animals, planning exhibits and
finalizing the location for George Washington Park. Construction
began Aug. 6, 1962, and the Indianapolis Zoo opened at its
original East 30th Street location on April 18, 1964.
After following his dreams through to reality, Nussbaum later
became known as “the father of the Indianapolis Zoo.”
original Indianapolis Zoo was called the Washington Park
Children’s Zoo, and had exhibits with an Asian elephant,
penguins, camels, tortoises, buffalos and more! Visitors
especially loved the Dutch windmill at the entrance as well as
giant replicas of a giraffe and a blue whale, which were icons
of the old Zoo. In its inaugural year, the Zoo welcomed 270,000
visitors. Over the next 22 years, the Indianapolis Zoo
encountered many additions and changes. Partly through donations
of personal “pets” such as monkeys, large cats, zebras,
wallabies, alligators and more, the collection had doubled in
size by the Zoo’s 20th anniversary. The designation
of a children’s zoo had outlasted its use and the Zoo needed a
new, bigger site.
A vision for a new, world-class Zoo began to emerge in 1982.
In addition to having more space, Zoo officials wanted
the new location to be in a more visible and accessible site the
heart of Indianapolis to attract more visitors. They found the
ideal location in the newly incorporated White River State Park.
The Zoo’s founders also knew it would be important to preserve
natural habitats, showcase diversity in species, and observe
natural behaviors to help save endangered species in the wild.
Central to this plan was the concept of a cage-less zoo, one
with exhibits that simulated the animals’ natural environments.
The shift in how the exhibits are presented was because, since
the Indianapolis Zoo's 1964 opening, zoos had become more than a
place to see animals; they are institutions of conservation and
Attended by state and local dignitaries,
important Zoo supporters and even a few animals, the new
facility broke ground in September 1985 in White River State
Park. (Photo at right provided by the
Society). The new Indianapolis Zoo was the first attraction
to open in White River State Park.
As construction on the new facility neared an end, the 23-year
run of the old Zoo came to a close, and on Nov. 1, 1987, the
Washington Park Children’s Zoo closed its gates for the last
time. With the arrival of new animals, the new Zoo grew to five
times its former size. Before the opening, staff continued
training and working hard to adapt to new exhibits, equipment
and employees. One of the biggest challenges was relocating the
Zoo’s 500 animals, which took weeks to prepare for and execute.
The new Indianapolis Zoo officially opened to the public on June
11, 1988. On that day, admission was $10, which included a
commemorative admission ticket and full access to the “Do the
New Zoo” Grand Opening Celebration festivities. The new Zoo
includes five exhibits, or biomes: Waters, showcasing more than
200 species of aquatic life from the world’s oceans, seas,
rivers and ponds; Deserts, highlighting life in desert habitats
around the globe; Plains, including animals of both the African
and Australian plains; Forests, featuring animals of temperate
and tropical forests; and Encounters, provide up-close
experiences with domestic animals from around the world. Other
main features of the new Zoo include an antique carousel and two
20th century reproduction horse-drawn streetcars, the
tracks for which can still be seen winding through Zoo grounds.
In the nearly five decades since the first Zoo opened its doors,
many things have changed about the Indianapolis Zoo. Yet one
thing remains unchanged — the vision of Lowell Nussbaum to
provide the people of Indianapolis and surrounding areas with a
place to learn from and be inspired by animals. That vision is
reflected even today in the mission of the Indianapolis Zoo: to
empower people and communities, both locally and globally, to
advance animal conservation.
As the first major development undertaken by the Indianapolis
Zoological Society since the Indianapolis Zoo opened at its
current White River State Park location in 1988, the addition of
White River Gardens broke ground in October 1997. The Gardens’
designers intended to present traditional garden elements in a
contemporary way, and White River Gardens is not the traditional
garden that most people imagine.
White River Gardens formally opened to the public on June 13,
1999. The Zoo and Gardens share the same main entrance; however,
the Gardens were initially maintained as a separate attraction
until 2006 when it was included as part of the Indianapolis Zoo.
Central to White River Gardens are the more than 16,000 plants,
including both native and exotic species, many of which are rare
or historic in value. The Gardens also include a glass-enclosed
conservatory, outdoor design gardens, water garden, numerous
artistic fountains and features, a wedding garden for ceremonies
and receptions, 1.5 miles of winding paths and walkways, and an
indoor/outdoor dining facility with a dramatic view of the
downtown skyline and riverfront.
While visitors will recognize a traditional formality in the
Garden design, they will find much of the detail refreshingly
new. It's really more of an idea garden where visitors can see
and experience innovative garden displays and gather inspiration
and information to help them transform their home gardens.