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By Keisha Hines
Atlanta’s oldest cultural destination celebrated a landmark anniversary on March 28, 2014, celebrating 125 years at home in historic Grant Park. Spanning more than 12 decades, ZooAtlanta’s rich history is a colorful story of animals, people and the power of community.
Traditionally observed as the Zoo’s Founder’s Day, March 28 commemorates a day that proved unfortunate for a circus but auspicious for the city. On March 28, 1889, local businessman George Valentine Gress was the highest bidder on an unusual public auction item: a ragtag collection of animals abandoned by a bankrupt traveling show. Gress purchased the entire collection – the odd assortment of creatures is said to have included a jaguar, hyena, elk, raccoon, black bear and camels, among others – and donated the animals to the City ofAtlanta for its first zoo. Known in its birth year as the Gress Zoological Park, the Zoo opened to the public inApril 1889.
“Almost everything about the story of our origins seems strange to us today – the idea of wild animals being available at auction, the concept of building housing for them in a matter of days, the notion that no one alive inAtlanta would have had the foggiest idea about how to care for most of them. It’s almost unreal,” said Raymond B. King, President and CEO. “But the story also has two very important things in common with the Zoo of today.These were the visions and convictions that the City deserved a great zoo, and the overwhelming interest the community showed in getting behind that zoo and helping it to succeed – a vision and conviction that is still true today.”
- V. Gress’s donation wouldn’t be the last fascinating event in the Zoo’s story. Subsequent decades held many more changes for the Zoo. In the mid-1930s, the collection expanded dramatically with the addition of a menagerie owned byAsa G. Candler, Jr., and expansion continued into the 1960s. By the mid-1980s, however, all that had once been considered state-of-the-art was considered outdated and run-down, and the struggling Zoo suffered a public rebuke as one of the nation’s worst zoological parks.The latter part of that decade brought one of the Zoo’s most remarkable periods of rebirth. Highlights included the 1988 opening of the world-class FordAfrican Rain Forest and a new home for Zoo icon Willie B. the gorilla, who took his first steps outside after more than 25 years in a solitary indoor environment. High-profile milestones continued into the late 1990s, most notably with the arrival of giant pandas Lun Lun andYangYang in 1999, heralding yet another exciting new era for ZooAtlanta.
“It’s amazing to consider what has been built in these 125 years. Where we once celebrated Willie B.’s first trip outside, we now celebrate his grandchildren. Where we once celebrated the arrival of giant pandas, we now look back on the births of five cubs, including the only giant panda twins in the U.S.,”King said. “Not only do we have these causes for celebration, but we are also now considered national leaders and influencers in these centers of excellence. Mr. Gress would probably be astonished, but most of all I think he would have been deeply proud and thrilled to see his vision realized in such a way. We have an interesting history, but our future will be even more so.”
Supporters and fans areencouraged to make acommemorative donation throughthe Zoo’s 125thAnniversary Donate to Celebrate campaign. Visitwww.zooatlanta.org/125to learn more.