The Washington Park Zoo began in 1925 when a retired animal trainer moved his pet Brown Bear named "Jake" to the Washington Park lake front. Jake did not have much public exposure after his trainer retired, so the man thought interested people might more often visit Jake in the park and provide company for him. The public response was immediate and a few other animals and birds were brought in from the fire department to add to the menagerie. Back then, the fire departments often took in misplaced exotic animals.
In 1927, City Manager Albert R. Couden, Max Gloye, and Wesley R. Kibby began planning for a special group to bring about the creation of a zoological garden. Behind the zoological garden lay the idea of park development, the study of zoology, and the furnishing of wholesome entertainment for the children and adults of Michigan City, as well as for the thousands of people who spent their summers at one of the numerous resorts along the lake front. In 1928, Mr. Couden appointed the first official Zoo Board, and the Zoo was moved off the lakefront to its present location in the sand dunes overlooking the lake.
The Zoo Board began by building new cages, pens, and walkways, solely with donated materials and volunteer labor. About this time, the Great Depression hit, so materials were scrounged, borrowed, and recycled from wherever possible. There are even stories about the resourceful Zoo Board salvaging some structure steel from a nearby bridge project and hiding it under manure piles so the City leaders wouldn't find it. Under President Roosevelt, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and New Deal policies began to blossom. Some zoos throughout the country were improved by WPA projects, but it is believed that the Washington Park Zoo is the only zoo in Indiana completely designed and landscaped by the WPA and its predecessor agencies, FERA and CWA (Civil Works Administration). The Zoo and surrounding Washington Park has the most comprehensive collection of WPA-designed and built leisure facilities for the public in Indiana. The WPA program was an important force within the Zoo and as long as the Zoo Board could find materials, the WPA continued to supply the labor and local people had jobs.
The first major project was the creation of "Monkey Island" in 1934. This consisted of a center-moated island with a high exterior wall and access tunnel. Several buildings followed, including two landmark structures. The observation tower sits on top of a sand dune east of the Zoo and overlooks Lake Michigan. This tower was the creation of a steel railroad tower faced with limestone and is the roof is topped with a spherical ornament reported to be a compression chamber from the city's first fire engine.
The "Castle" structure that houses our small mammals was built in 1937 and is a replica of the official insignia of the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army. The Zoo has several winding walkways that were also built during the WPA days. A total of eleven buildings within the Zoo are on the National Register of Historic Places
The Zoo has undergone many changes since those early days. Today, the Zoo has a vast array of animals in its collection, generally housing between 85 and 100 species, totaling around 250 animals. Several are Species Survival Plan (SSP) animals, members of designated endangered species groups and much more who are rescued misplaced exotic pets or non-releasable wildlife due to injuries that they substained in the wild.
Over the last few years, a sharper focus has been made to improve the landscape within the Zoo and many of the flower beds were refurbished to create a pollination garden to attract native birds and insects, as well as to provide fresh enrichment items for the Zoo animals.
Other WPZ History Highlights:
1977 New feline house opened
1978 Elephant house constructed
1990 Elephant house turned into education center
1994 Gardens refurbished under landscape designed
2004 The zoo’s new main entrance opened
2005 The gift shop opened in admin/entry building
2006 The Observation tower was restored and re-opened
2006 The North American Carnivore exhibited opened which houses the zoo’s grizzly bears, mountain lion and river otters
2006 New 40' x 80' maintenance building constructed
2009 The Australian Avian Adventure exhibit opens, which allows visitors to enter the aviary and feed parakeets and cockatiels.
2011 Treehouse gift shop expanded
2011 Safari train ride opened
2013 A classroom and public restrooms were added to the Discovery
2015 A new Timber Wolf exhibit opened
2015 Expanded and improved American Alligator exhibit
2015 Rotary Children's Castle Interior Renovations
2015 An interactive fiberglass cow was added to the Red Barn
2015 The Zoo’s reptile collection moved into the newly developed Discovery Center
2015 The wallaby/emu exhibit opened
2016 The renovated primate house was complete
2016 A Fennec Fox, Barn Owl and N.A Porcupine exhibit opened
2016 The Bald Eagle exhibit was expanded
2016 Climbing decks were added to the Big Cat habitats
2016 Improvements were made in the Safari Train area
2017 The Concession stand opened near the Discovery Center which includes a covered deck and concrete patio area for guest dining and Zoo events
2017 The Otto and Margaret Zack Charitable Trust Animal Care Clinic opened
2017 A new Upper Aviary building was created
2017 The Box Turtle Ed-shell-cation area was created
2017 Improvements were made to create a new Arctic Fox habitat
2017 The local Lowes store built a new raptor exhibit
2017 The Classroom was relocated to the front of the Zoo in the old Concession stand building