Located at 2300 Steele St, the Denver Zoo started in 1896 with a single bear in City Park and has grown to an eighty-acre campus. 350 employees are overseeing a total of about 3,700 animals from more than 600 species. The zoo draws more than 2 million visitors per year, making it one of Colorado’s most popular cultural attractions. In the late nineteenth century, the large-scale killing of wild animals particularly large predators such as lions, tigers, and bears made collections of such animals for conservation and public exhibition seem valuable and interesting. At the same time, cities were starting to develop their municipal zoos, which were often located in large public parks and linked to nearby botanical gardens and natural history museums.
The Denver Zoo emerged as part of this movement, though its origins and early decades were largely unplanned. The zoo’s first animal was Billy Bear, a black bear captured on the Western Slope in 1896 and sent by rail to the general passenger agent of the Colorado Midland Railway, who was a friend of the hunter. The passenger agent did not want a pet bear and promptly gave it to the Denver Board of Park Commissioners, who tied it to a stake in City Park. After some trouble involving the park superintendent’s chicken coop, Billy Bear was relocated to the north side of the park, where he marked the start of the zoo that occupies the same space today.
Initially, the zoo was intended as just another attraction within City Park. With no fence or entry fee, visitors could simply stroll or drive past the animals on their way through the park. City landscape architect Reinhard Schuetze laid out a Victorian plan of cages along carriageways, and animal care was added to the duties of the existing park staff. Nevertheless, the zoo was different from the park, and already by 1900, the Zoological Department had its accounts and a couple of dedicated employees. The first animal keeper, Alfred Hill, was charged with the difficult task of keeping the zoo clean and orderly.
At various times park leaders articulated a vision of preserving what early Denver historian Jerome Smiley called “the almost extinct wild animals of Colorado” and followed up with a collection that included an eagle, deer, elk, bison, moose, bighorn sheep, wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, foxes, and prairie dogs. But the zoo also took whatever else it could get, including Great Danes, Cotswold sheep, Angora goats, and a wide variety of exotic pheasants from a breeder in Littleton. The first monkeys arrived in 1908 and soon became a star attraction. After many of them died of tuberculosis in the early 1910s, the park board bought different species that were less susceptible to the disease.
By the 1910s, the zoo had grown to the point where city leaders decided to plan for its future. Multiple new designs were proposed in the first half of the decade, but they were lost in the shuffle of municipal reorganizations during those years. The idea that finally stuck was developed by Schuetze and new animal keeper Victor Borcherdt. Borcherdt had been hired in 1912 after serving as a taxidermist and then head of the Colorado Museum of Natural History, which had become the zoo’s neighbor in 1908. Borcherdt and Schuetze’s plan called for a “Habitat Zoo” modeled on Carl Hagenbeck’s famous zoo in Stellingen, Germany, which had opened the previous decade and marked the first shift away from Victorian cages toward a more naturalistic zoo design. Habitat Zoo would replicate rocky outcrops using concrete molds, with multiple units for bears and other mountain-dwelling creatures and no bars obstructing the view.
Funding came from the city in 1916, after Robert Speer began his second stint as mayor, and construction started the following year, with workers taking molds of an outcrop near Morrison. Progress was slow because American entry into World War I caused spikes in the cost of labor and materials, but the bear unit was ready by winter 1918. The $50,000 spent on Bear Mountain, as the exhibit was known, dwarfed all previous zoo expenditures, but it made the Denver Zoo the first in the United States to deploy naturalistic design. It quickly became the zoo’s main attraction.
However, after the war, civic leaders started to recognize that the zoo’s steady decline had made it a mild embarrassment. The zoo started to turn around in 1947 when Quigg Newton replaced Stapleton as mayor. As part of a broader transformation of Denver, CO, Newton focused on creating a cultural environment more conducive to private philanthropy. At the zoo, that meant bringing in advisors from the natural history museum, which had its board of trustees as well as a strong record of private giving. By 1950 the grassroots Denver Zoological Society had formed to support the zoo. Led by Lawrence Cook, the society spearheaded fundraising for the zoo’s first elephant, Cookie, who arrived that July to giant crowds. After years of squabbles about how much power the foundation should possess, it was finally contracted to run the zoo in 1956.
If the 1960s brought new infrastructure, the 1970s, on the other hand, saw a shift toward professionalization and education. The zoo’s redevelopment continued under director Clayton Freiheit. Over the next decade, the zoo hired its first curator, education specialist, and full-time veterinarian and became a fully accredited member of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums, and got involved in conservation efforts around the globe. In 1975 it opened Bird World, which allowed people to walk through a variety of habitats with no separation between them and the birds, and in 1979 it built new mountain sheep habitats with artificial rock ledges reminiscent of Bear Mountain.
Like Denver’s other major cultural organizations, the zoo took a hit during the 1980s oil bust. The state ended its cultural subsidies in 1982, and the city, itself suffering from the oil bust and the effects of suburbanization, proved unable to make up the difference. With high fixed costs tied to feeding the animals, the zoo had to scramble for funding. It raised admission fees in 1982 and 1985 but did not see funding stabilize until the state legislature created the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District in 1987 and voters approved a new 0.1 percent sales tax a year later. Funding started to flow in 1989 and has been a boon for the zoo, which received more than $1 million in the first year. Today the zoo receives roughly $9 million annually in SCFD funding, more than one-fifth of its budget.
In the early 2000s, the zoo continue to develop thematic habitats that were also at the leading edge of zoo design. The most prominent of these was Predator Ridge, which opened in 2004 near the zoo’s entrance. With multiple zones through which the exhibit’s lions, hyenas, and wild dogs could be moved. Eight years later, the zoo followed up with Elephant Passage, a series of linked yards covering a total of ten acres. Elephants roam across the bulk of the exhibit, but there are also areas for rhinoceroses and Malayan tapirs. In 2017 the zoo opened a new tiger exhibit, The Edge, which helped push annual visitation to a record 2.2 million.
Today the Denver Zoo faces a variety of challenges, including older exhibits and aging animals as well as a fixed footprint within City Park. CEO Bert Vescolani, who was hired in 2018, has said that the zoo will probably have a smaller, more focused collection of animals in the future.
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