As early as the turn of the century, animals were displayed in Peoria's parks. The octagonal Japanese styled building near the pavilion in Glen Oak Park was built to house rabbits. As assortment of pheasants, guinea pigs, pigeons and two talking crows were later kept there. Pens in Glen Oak Park held elk and deer. Bradley and Detweiller Parks also supported animals in pens until 1945. The more than one hundred large animals, deer elk and bison, were threatening to over populate and do damage to the parks. To reduce the populations, many were given away or traded for other animals.
Enthusiasm was stirred in the middle 1920's for construction of a zoo in Peoria. Some 13,000 children and adults signed petitions favoring a zoo constructed by the Park District. Bradley Park was tentatively selected as the best of the several locations considered. Following a suggestion by an architectural firm with experience in zoo design, the park was surveyed to determine the best location.
Area residents objected to a Bradley Park zoo because of potential damage to the value of their properties. The legality of using the park as a zoo was raised in the dispute. A lawyer's examination of the deed concluded that because of the wording, any use other than its current form as a public park would be illegal. The other sites were reconsidered. Glen Oak Park and a site near Madison Golf Course were possibilities, but Detweiller Park was selected as having the best potential.
The Park Board was faced with a problem beyond the location. In the midst of the depression when many were out of work and often in doubt about their next meal, the question of housing and feeding "dumb animals" at public expense was raised.
"Should the elephant be warmly housed and fed, while underprivileged citizens shiver and go hungry? Should the monkey have expert care while an undernourished child is in need of milk and fresh air? Should a lion have his daily ration of fresh meat while poor people are denied meat soup?"
While some aired their concern for the underprivileged, others expressed concern for damaged property value. Residents near Detweiller Park petitioned against the zoo there, too. A final blow was delivered in a written statement from park donor Thomas Detweiller, withdrawing his permission to locate the zoo there. Understanding the frustration the board must have felt, President Newman commented, "That doesn't fit in very well with our plans."
The issue was not allowed to die. The South Side Business Club, an organization of business operating in the southern part of the city, adopted the cause. Offering assistance in financing the project and in acquiring land, the association presented a confident plan. City owned property, bordering Trewyn Park to the south and west, would be donated to the Park District for zoo development in conjunction with the park land, but not on it. The promise of animals, such as elk, bison and antelope were made by Senator Dirksen from government reserves, for the cost of transportation.
Once again, the people objected to construction of a zoo near their homes of businesses.
The fear of odors from the animals was the greatest objection. Though many could be found to sign petitions in supports of a zoo for Peoria, few were willing to have it in their neighborhood.
In the midst of the public discussion of the issue, a small zoo, consisting of South American and rhesus monkeys, was opened to much enthusiasm in the basement of the Glen Oak Park pavilion in 1936 by Howard Fuller, a writer for the Peoria Star and leading zoo supporter. The bandshell near the Glen Oak pavilion, no longer used by concerts, was converted for the monkeys and birds in 1937. It drew such large crowds, the band decided to resume performances there the next year. A new outdoor cage for the monkeys was constructed and a wing of the old service building, now the Bio Center, was cleared of odds and ends stored there to make room for winter quarter cages.
The small collection of animals, particularly the monkeys, continued to draw large crowds. Bird cages for the growing aviary were constructed on the island in the Glen Oak Lagoon, now the site of the amphitheater. Known originally as Rose Island for its landscaped gardens, it became Bird Island after its new residents.
New animals added size and diversity to the collection. Ocelots and tropical animals gave a taste of the exotic to a collection including opossums, ground hogs, brightly plumed birds and birds of prey. Bears were an attraction of another sort. A WPA project to build a bear pit was begun just before World War II and though interrupted, reached a stage of completion sufficient to Himalayan bears to it. Its ten foot wide moat provided visitors a view unobstructed by bars. When the bears were disposed of (HUH?), the area housed ponies for children's rides, and was eventually removed.
A part of the monkey cage in the winter quarters was partitioned to provide space for a new acquisition. The lions, a make and a female, took up residence in the late 1940's producing a number of cubs to delight visitors over the years.
The Park District's animial collection, ranging from common domesticated and native wild animals to exotic species, formed the basis of a respectable zoo, but the exhibited animals were spread over several parks. The desire for a formal zoo was voiced again in the prosperity of the early fifties.
...my wife wants to watch a movie, so to be continued...
Since many animals were housed in the old service building in Glen Oak Park - now the Bio Center - the possibility of expanding it to a full scale zoo was considered. Zoo experts were consulted. Director of Lincoln Park Zoo, Marlin Perkins visited Peoria to advise against adaptation of an old facility. He explained that a zoo of worth to the city and park district should be designed for the comfort and health of the animals, the enjoyment of the visitor and east of maintenance.
A final plan was accepted by June, 1955. The site selected was that of the old Palm House and seemed to raise no objections. In this design visitors would be conducted around a series of curving displays.
"Zoo viewers will first enter a high-ceilinged section containing tropical birds, then proceed around the first curve to the reptile and small mammal exhibits. From here, the viewer comes to a larger area having nine small cages and one large to be occupied by monkeys, chimpanzees and similar exhibits.
The final curve brings the area to be occupied by lions, bears and leopards into sight. This section will provide both indoor and outdoor pens."
The first director of the new zoo was Dick Houlihan. He first became involved with caring for the Park District animals in 1935 as a maintenance man. His zoo career started from the bottom as the man who cleaned the cages. His responsibilities grew to include feeding and eventually to overall responsibility for the health of the animals.
Wild animals in captivity sometimes rejected their young. The zookeeper then had no alternative but to adapt the role of foster mother. Dick Houlihan raised a great many of these unwanted offspring in his home, including lions, leopards, monkeys and any other motherless zoo animal. In 1962, after Houlihan's death, a plaque was placed in the zoo's entrance honoring his years of service and dedication to the animals under his care.
The public was given a preview of the nearly completed facility in March 1955. The response was overwhelming. More than 7,000 visitors toured the new zoo that day. The doors were opened for the eager visitors standing in line a half hour early and stayed open an hour late. The official grand opening came two months later, May 15, 1955.
Zoo exhibits put little emphasis on creating a natural setting for the animals when the zoo was built in the 1950s. Elements of the circus were borrowed by two of the early zoo directors. Lou Gaeta, a pupil of showman Clyde Beatty, was often on the road with his raptors and a show called "Hunter with Wings." He also worked with trained lions. His performances were a popular attraction for the zoo. Performances were continued by Joe Frisco, the next director. A trailer was acquired advertising, "The Glen Oak Zoo, Peoria, Illinois, Home of Joe Frisco's Wild Animal Circus." The traveling show, including a trained elephant and chimpanzees, not only prompted the zoo's attendance, but the revenue helped pay for the total cost of the zoo.
A decade later a change was made to emphasize natural setting in the exhibits. Cages were redesigned in 1974 and 1975 to reflect as much as possible the natural habitat of the animal. Hands-on educational exhibits became more representative of the zoo than the trained chicken that formerly dispensed postcards for a food reward when the visitor inserted a coin.
To assist the zoo achieve the goals of broadening understanding of the natural world, improving facilities and maintaining high professional standards, a group of about 400 formed the organization, Friends of Glen Oak Zoo. Since 1976 when its constitution and by-laws were approved, the organization has assumed or assisted in financing several projects for the zoo, including the animal hospiltal, eagle cages and seal pool.
The Glen Oak Zoo received accreditation in 1981 by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AZA), one of only fifty institutions, an endorsement of the quality of its displays and programs. In 1986 it underwent a re-examination and gained re-accreditation. Today, the zoo's purposes are education, conservation of resources, recreation and for research.
A History of the Peoria Park District by Richard Hunsley, P 65-72
1992 - A community task force was formed to analyze the Zoo's status and recommend a path regarding it's future. The conclusions: the zoo is an important part of our community; it should remain centrally located; a master plan should be developed to give direction.
1997 - The Peoria Zoological Society was formed to lead the effort for the new Zoo. Torre Design Consortium was hired and after significant community involvement, a Master Plan was completed and adopted.
2002 - The Peoria Park District and the Peoria Zoological Society signed an agreement regarding the expansion of the Zoo and fundraising efforts began.
2009 - The Peoria Park District and the Peoria Zoological Society open Africa!
2012 - Power of Play campaign reaches milestone with the opening of the Barton Pavilion. The Barton Pavilion now serves as the entrance to the zoo.
2015 - The Power of Play campaign makes great strides towards creating a "day long destination" in Glen Oak Park with the opening of the Peoria PlayHouse Children's Museum.
When I was about 3-4 years old, my family took me to the Glen Oak Zoo and had me ride on the back of the very large turtle they had there at that time. This would have been around 1957 or 1958. A photographer happened to be there that day. He took a photograph of me on the turtle and put it in the Peoria Journal Star. I'm going to contact PJS and see if they can send me a copy of that picture.