Detroit Zoo

This weekend I went to visit the Detroit Zoo, which I have not been to since I was a kid. The zoo hadn’t been my first choice of places to visit, and I have to admit, I wasn’t too thrilled about the idea (the zoo in winter? won’t it be cold?). However, I actually had a great time. There are two great advantages to visiting the zoo in the wintertime: 1) there are less people and 2) the cold weather animals, like polar bears, are actually moving around instead of laying pitifully in the shade trying to cool off. As the Detroit Zoo has one of the best arctic zoo exhibits in the country, this makes a visit in January a pretty good deal.

The famous Detroit Zoo Water Tower

The famous Detroit Zoo Water Tower

Of course, me being me, I wanted to find out as much as I could about the history of the zoo. I learned some history at the zoo, as there are a small number of historical signs and one artifact (the original zoo train) on display, but then I did more research after we got home. I learned that although the Detroit Zoo  has some issues when it started up, it has long been a favorite attraction of Detroiters and has often been a leader in innovative and animal-friendly policies.

Historical Marker at the Zoo

Historical Marker at the Zoo

The first incarnation of the zoo came about in 1883 when a travelling circus went broke while in Detroit and prominent Detroit citizen Luther Beecher bought the animals and erected a building to display them. The building was located at Michigan and Trumbull, where the Detroit Tigers would later play from 1895-1999. This first zoo didn’t last long – according to some sources, one of the problems was that Detroiters kept stealing the animals! The idea of a zoo was revived in 1911 with the founding of the Detroit Zoological Society, although the zoo itself didn’t open until 1928. A number of sites were considered before the society finally settled on the corner of 10 Mile and Woodward, where the zoo still stands today. There’s a great story that goes along with the zoo’s Grand Opening in 1928. Detroit Mayor John C. Nagel was supposed to speak at the opening but arrived late. He parked by the bear dens and rushed around front – where a polar bear, drawn to a piece of bread left out by the zookeeper, jumped out of his moat a stood directly in front of him. Taking it in stride (and unaware of the level of danger), Nagel out his hand a said “he’s the reception committee.” Zookeepers rushed the bear back into his enclosure before any damage could be done, but the event certainly added to the excitement of the day.

I would hate to have a showdown with one of these guys!

I would hate to have a showdown with one of these guys!

The first day the zoo was open to the public it was so mobbed with crowds that the turnstiles were ordered taken out so people could enter faster. Excited visitors also broke through the fence on 10 mile to get into the park. Admission was free at that time and many people were thrilled to see exotic animals without leaving metro Detroit.

Photograph of Paulina the Elephant, from a historical timeline at the zoo.

Photograph of Paulina the Elephant, from a historical timeline at the zoo.

The zoo’s design, with large cage-free enclosures surrounded by moats was influenced by Heinrich Hagenbeck of the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany. These enclosures, which were supposed to allow the animals more space and a more natural habitat, were the first of their kind in the U.S. Nonetheless, the zoo still had many practices considered acceptable at the time that have since been stopped. In the zoo’s early days, you could ride Paulina the elephant for a nickel or see shows by Jo Mendi, a chimpanzee who had acted on Broadway and in Hollywood. Elephant rides ended in 1940, although chimpanzee shows lasted until 1982. Change is far from over, however, as in 2005 the Detroit Zoo became the first to give up its elephants completely on ethical grounds, stating that the Michigan winters were too cold and that keeping them inside all winter was psychologically damaging.

There’s one other bit history I learned at the zoo that I found interesting, and would like to explore further. Near the end of the Arctic Ring of Life exhibit, there is a small plaque dedicated to Michigan’s “Polar Bears,”  American soldiers who fought a failed campaign against the Red Army in northern Russia in 1918-1919. The soldiers were a part of an intervention by the allied countries of WWI in the Russian Civil War on the side of the pro-Tsarist White forces. The Allied intervention sought to stop the spread of communism and to revive the Eastern Front in WWI. Many of the soldiers were from Michigan and Detroit, and so they became known as “Detroit’s Own – Polar Bears.” I found this to be a very interesting bit of Michigan history, and I appreciated that the Zoo included it in the polar bear exhibit. It was a nice way way to connect some local history with the exotic animals on display. According to the plaque, there’s also a memorial to the Polar Bears at a cemetery in Troy – I may need to go check that out!

Plaque dedicated to Michigan Soldiers

Plaque dedicated to Michigan Soldiers

I really enjoyed my visit to the Detroit Zoo. Not only did I get to see some cool animals, but I learned some Michigan history as well. Well worth a visit, even in the middle of winter!



Houston, Kay, “How the Detroit Zoo’s First Day was Almost It’s Last,” Detroit News,

Garrett, Bob, “Polar Bears,” Michigan DNR,,4570,7-153-54463_19313_20652_19271_19357-175188–,00.html


One thought on “Detroit Zoo

  1. Pingback: Michigan’s Polar Bears | Mitten History

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