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Brookfield Zoo celebrates its 75th Birthday
West suburban zoo celebrates 75 years of study, preservation and memories

Monday, June 29, 2009
Chicago Sun-Times
by Dave Newbart

When Brookfield Zoo opened 75 years ago on July 1, 1934, 58,000 people packed into the 216-acre grounds -- twice the number that visit the zoo on a busy day now.

Since that time, more than 133 million people have visited the West Suburban zoo, tens of thousands of animals have been born there and the zoo has spent millions on research.

The zoo is celebrating its birthday starting Wednesday with a series of events, including the release of a new book on its history and special tram tours.

That history dates to 1919, when the daughter of John D. Rockefeller, Edith Rockefeller McCormick, donated to the Forest Preserve of Cook County an 83-acre property in Brookfield for the purpose of creating a zoo.

Additional county land was added to the donated property and a groundbreaking took place in 1922. But serious construction got under way after a zoological tax was approved by voters in 1926 (a tax which still exists), although work slowed dramatically after the stock market crash in 1929.

The first animals at the zoo were donated from a number of other zoos, including a private one in Michigan owned by George Getz, a Chicago coal magnate and boxing promoter.

Edward Bean, the first director, of the zoo, emphasized the zoo's objective was to "preserve wildlife.''

The zoo's design was in contrast to other urban zoos that kept animals in small cages, said current zoo president Stuart Strahl. The zoo modeled itself after one in Hamburg, Germany, that emphasized clear views of the animals with moats around the enclosures.

"There was a lot of publicity because this was such a different way of seeing animals,'' Strahl said.

The zoo's early years provided a series of firsts, including the first giant panda to be exhibited in North America, who was bought from a private collector who got the animal from Szechuan Province in China in 1937. Visitors included Shirley Temple and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The zoo was the first in the country to breed black rhinos and okapi, now has the most successful breeding program for polar bears and wombats. It was one of the first zoos to open a veterinary hospital in 1952 and was the first to do brain surgery and give artificial hips to gorillas. In the 1980s, it was one of the first to launch an animal nutrition program. Soon it will open the first CT scan in a zoo.

"Zoo veterinary medicine has come a long ways,'' Strahl said.

Brookfield opened the first inland dolphinarium in 1961, and attendance that year went over 2 million for the first time since 1938. In the early 1980s, it opened Tropic World, the first such exhibit of its kind.

Perhaps the zoo's most famous resident was Ziggy, a 6½ ton bull elephant that lived at the zoo for decades. He gained a "cult following'' by the time he died in 1975, zoo officials said.

The zoo has changed over the years -- it has 2,500 animals, down from as many as 4,000.

"We were putting five or six polar bears in an exhibit,'' Strahl said. "You really shouldn't do that. It's not good for animal welfare.''

The zoo is now more focused on breeding endangered species. About 90 percent of its animals from nearly 400 species were bred in captivity, officials said. Many from the wild were either orphaned or injured.

Strahl, who notes that the zoos and aquariums routinely outdraw other cultural institutions, believes there is a vibrant future for zoos despite the occasional controversies that surface. Zoos have become a leader in conservation education.

"Our founders were focused on the fact that animals were disappearing in the wild,'' he said. "Our whole mission is to inspire conservation leadership by connecting people with wildlife and nature. There is a huge difference in seeing a live animal versus seeing an animal on TV. People are automatically attracted to live animals.''

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