The Washington Park Zoo began in 1925 when a retired animal trainer moved his pet Brown Bear named "Jake" to the Washington Park lakefront. 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 lakefront. 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 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, birds, and a few reptiles 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 Placescastle 2020
The Zoo has undergone many changes since those early days. Today, the Zoo has a vast array of animals in its collection, generally housing around 90 species, totaling around 200 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 sustained in the wild.
In 2015, WPZoo submitted an updated Master Plan to the Park Board to guide the future of the Zoo. This plan aligns with the Zoo's mission, vision, values, and strategic imperative. Unanimously passed by the Board and updated every few years, we are driven to secure funding and support to execute this plan with the commitment to the highest quality guest experience and animal care and welfare. Not only does our Master Plan contain the map for the zoo’s future, but it also shares a vision of our role in supporting our community in an ever-changing world. Over the last few years, a sharper focus has been made based on this plan to improve the habitats, and the grounds with an emphasis on creating pollination garden landscapes to attract native birds and insects, as well as to provide fresh enrichment items for the Zoo animals.
Some of our highlight points since 2015, have been the opening of the Discovery Building, Animal Care Clinic, Peacock Cafe, Coop Concession, Pollinator Gardens, Wolf Outlook, Koi Pool, Australian Walkabout Exhibit, and the Fallow Deer Woods, but we have done upgrades to almost every area of the zoo including the restoration of the Castle in 2019 and the expansion of the Big Cat Complex in 2022. We are still dreaming big and have many more plans, programs, and improvements to come, but these take funding.
In 2016, the Washington Park Zoo was first accredited by the Zoological Association of America (ZAA)! The ZAA is a non-profit membership-based accrediting organization dedicated to responsible wildlife management, conservation, and education. The ZAA upholds the highest levels of professional standards in animal welfare, safety, and ethics. ZAA Accreditation is a rigorous process that includes an extensive application and site inspection. The institution must undergo the complete process every five years to maintain the accredited status. To find out more information about the ZAA please check out their website here.