When and how did the Highland Park Zoo get its start? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

When and how did the Highland Park Zoo get its start?

Question submitted by: Jim Connelly, Verona

Pittsburgh has never lacked for wildlife displays. Lemming-like behavior can be observed in City Council on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings; and in the South Side, residents use parking chairs in complicated rituals to assert territorial dominance. In fact, Rachel Colker's book The Pittsburgh Zoo: a 100-year history notes that Pittsburgh had a handful of zoos prior to the Highland Park facility's opening on June 14, 1898. The largest of them was in Schenley Park: It boasted more than 350 animals, including an elephant named "Gusky."

But zoos, like their charges, eventually evolve. Pittsburgh's did so by getting a lot larger -- thanks to the designs of Christopher L. Magee. (Yeah, I realize I mixed an evolution metaphor with an intelligent-design metaphor: I'm "teaching the controversy.")

Magee was an interesting specimen himself, a particularly successful hybrid of private interest and public-spiritedness. He was a state senator, newspaper publisher, city official, and owner of a trolley company. He was also the brains behind one of the most powerful political machines in Pittsburgh history.

And he had a gift for camouflage. On Dec. 24, 1895 -- Christmas Eve, no less -- he sent a letter to the city proposing an exchange of gifts:

"No more interesting or instructive institutions can be found in the great cities of the world than the Zoological Gardens," Magee wrote. "They appeal alike to the young and old, and to people in every walk of life. ... I desire on behalf of my associations in the Fort Pitt Traction Company, and for myself, to tender ... suitable buildings for a Zoological Garden, to be erected in Highland Park."

The city, in other words, need only donate the portion of Highland Park necessary for the zoo grounds. The buildings would cost $100,000, Magee estimated, and would be "free to the people." Construction would be subject to the approval of Edward M. Bigelow, who headed the city's Public Works department ... and who happened to be Magee's cousin.

Not surprisingly, city officials jumped on the offer: According to news accounts of the day, city council accepted the gift before the New Year. Pittsburgh wanted to celebrate the natural world its industries were so busily despoiling; as Colker writes, "creating a zoological park became a matter of civic pride" ... and civic shame. After all, by the time Magee sent his letter, "Philadelphia, New York, Cincinnati, and Cleveland" -- Cleveland! -- "already had well established city-sponsored zoological parks."

Colker doesn't mention it, but there was a bit of self-interest in Magee's offer as well. In the 1800s, trolley companies routinely built attractions that were designed to attract visitors ... visitors who, hopefully, would take a trolley to see the attraction. Pittsburgh had numerous such attractions, Kennywood not least among them.

It had to warm Magee's heart -- and not purely with public-spiritedness -- to read the following in a Commercial Gazette story about the zoo's opening-day festivities: "The crowds arrived with every street car, and came from all parts of [Pittsburgh]." In fact, Magee himself, "with his associates in the [trolley company,] sat for almost an hour and watched 10,000 of Pittsburgh's population finding pleasure in the new gift." Sure, the public "repaid in appreciation what the Highland Park zoological garden cost in dollars," as the article put it. But some of those trolley fares must have helped as well.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given Pittsburgh's reputation for robber barons, the most popular exhibit was the "Carnivora Room," which housed lions, tigers ... and presumably the occasional machine politician.

The original zoo consisted of a single crescent-shaped structure with an octagonal wing at each end. News accounts lauded the structure's "charming appearance," though no doubt the animals were less impressed. The floors were of concrete, and while the Gazette praised the wainscoting in Gusky's new home, the poor elephant probably would have preferred a few trees.

And things only got worse. The city was responsible for paying the zoo's operating costs, but within a few years there was a growing chorus of complaint about the deteriorating conditions.

As popular as the zoo was, Colker writes, running it "was difficult for the city. It was expensive to maintain the buildings and grounds and difficult to supervise the care of the animals."

Really, what Pittsburgh official of today can't relate?

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