Writing for the
Ann Arbor Observer
By Mike Gould
I found the zoo by going to the movies.
On weekends during the late fifties, my brother John and I would walk to the State or Michigan theater for our regular monster movie fix. We would hike down Geddes, pass the graveyard, cross Washtenaw and there it was: the University of Michigan Museum Zoo. We would visit the zoo as a way-station on our trek, pausing on our way to check out the animals. Our journey would continue past the museum's front door (climb on the bronze pumas), past the ROTC building (climb up the tubular fire escape tunnel and slide back down), with brief sojourns to the fountain next to Burton Tower (walk daringly along the edge), and Drake's on North University for penny candy. But the highlight of the trip was the zoo.
The zoo and its environs were tucked away behind the museum, where the 1963 addition to the museum now sits, along with a UM parking lot - Impalas and Cougars where there were once foxes and raccoons. The museum ran the zoo, which consisted of a circular enclosure around forty feet in diameter, with wedge-shaped cages filled with skunks, bears, and for a time, a real live wolverine. The center of the enclosure contained a small compartment for each segment where the animals could sleep, and as I recall, a work table for preparing critter chow. There was an adjacent pit cage filled with various species of Michigan turtles, snakes, and frogs. I remember the pit was surrounded by a short concrete wall, surmounted by chain link fence. The whole area was nicely landscaped with walkways and shrubs.
In my later years at Angell Elementary School, a buddy of mine and I got in the habit of visiting the zoo after school. We would go on Fridays because we had learned that was one of the times they fed the animals. We somehow fast-talked our way into the confidences of the grad student who was dispensing the feed, and he allowed us to accompany him on his rounds. This was pretty cool for a couple of elementary school kids; we got to see the secret sacred back areas of the zoo (and the museum), and got to throw dead mice to the resident predators. I was a budding naturalist at the time, deep into catching frogs and snakes. The museum and its zoo were, for a time, my main places to hang out.
The museum, now called the Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building, was finished in 1928 and the zoo, or "Animal House" as it was referred to in those pre-Belushi days, was completed in 1929. The zoo, also called the Museum Zoological Park, was designed by the architect firm of B & G, and paid for by an anonymous donor.
The zoo was a pretty big deal when it opened, according to various documents now housed in the Bentley Historical Library:
Report of the Director of the Museum of Zoology of the University of Michigan to the Board of Regents for the Year ending June 30, 1930. ... The first unit of the zoo for native Michigan mammals was completed early in the fall...
The central structure is of material and design to harmonize with the museums building, and is constructed to service adequately the outdoor runs for the animals. These runs are in turn protected by a low cement and wire fence placed five feet in front to guard the animals from possible molestation by visitors. At present the animals shown are as follows: two black bears, one red fox, one badger, four skunks, six raccoons, and two porcupines. The animals have been kept in splendid condition, all are native species taken in the state and perfectly acclimated. Most of them were presented by the Michigan State Department of Conservation.
The second unit was completed late in the fall, and put into service early the following spring. This is the turtle and snake pen, an area of about two hundred and ten square feet enclosed with an adequate cement and wire fence, and containing a shallow pool with a running water supply. The following species have been maintained there: Blanding, spotted, pond, woods, snapper , musk, soft shell, map , and box turtles, - blue racer, hog-nose, water, garter, ribbon, milk and fox snakes. Here again, only native Michigan species were shown in accordance with the plan of the little zoo.
The response of the public to these two features was immediate and enthusiastic, and the interest has been sustained. A most fortunate choice of an attendant was made, so that the contacts with the visitors have been established in an intelligent and friendly way. While it was impracticable to attempt the recording of attendance, occasional checks for one day showed that hundreds of adults and children were coming. It is certain that these new features of the Museum were widely appreciated and used, and that new friendly contacts between the university and the public have resulted. The vision and hope of the donor who made this possible have been fully realized. Perhaps the pleasure which the crippled children from the University Hospital have taken before the bear cage alone justifies the effort and expense. It is hoped the plan can be extended in the near future and another small unit constructed.
Subsequent reports mention three coyotes being added to the population. The reptile pen seemed to be quite popular as well:
 ... The small outdoor zoo of Michigan mammals has been a steady attraction, while the enclosed pool for live turtles and snakes has had its continual ring of interested spectators during the seasonable months.
I recall the zoo being shuttered during the winter, and I remember hearing that many of the reptiles were released then, to be replenished the following spring. I can imagine undergrad zoology students being handed nets and told to report back with a fresh batch of snakes, frogs and turtles (a job I would have loved as a child).
A later report detailed the acquisition of two bear cubs:
Without a doubt, the most popular accessions of the year were two bear cubs - received on February 3, 1933, from the Conservation Department, through Lee McCrimmon, conservation Officer at Luther, Michigan. They were probably about four weeks old when they were received, weighed less than two pounds each, and their eyes were not yet open. By careful feeding and constant attention they were successfully reared, and eventually they will be at home in the Animal House. Bear cubs of this early age are seldom seen; they proved to be a great attraction during the daily exhibition hour in the Fourth Floor Hall. Aside from their exhibition value during their first few months, they furnished desirable information on the growth rate and development in young bears.
I remember seeing bears there in the late sixties, and this has been corroborated in my interviews with various museum people. They, however, insist that the bears were called "Brother" and "Sister". I would guess that the zoo went through several sets in its history, and I could swear that the ones I remember were called Maize and Blue, as they are referred to in other museum documents.
There was at one time a real live wolverine at the zoo, the consequence of a search for a football mascot.
From the UM Campus Information Center:
Despite the wolverine's ferocity, Fielding Yost set out to find one in 1923, upon seeing Wisconsin carrying live badgers along with its football team. Yost's desire met with difficulty, as the coach had problems finding a dealer in live wolverines. After a letter to 68 trappers yielded no mascot for his team, Yost expanded his wish to any wolverine, alive or dead. Yost finally got word of a mounted wolverine belonging to Michigan Senator, William Alden Smith, and made a deal to secure the wolverine for his team. However, Yost went to Smith's home only to find that the specimen was actually a coyote. Yost was able to obtain a mounted wolverine from the Hudson Bay Fur Company in the fall of 1924, but his quest for a live one continued. In 1927, 10 wolverines were obtained from Alaska and placed in the Detroit Zoo. On big football days, two of these wolverines were brought to Michigan Stadium and carried around in cages. However, the animals grew larger and more ferocious, and as Yost states, " It was obvious that Michigan mascots had designs on the Michigan men toting them, and those designs were no means friendly." Therefore the practice of bringing wolverines into the stadium had to be discontinued after only one year. However, one of the wolverines was not returned to the zoo. Instead "Biff" was put in a cage at the University of Michigan Zoo where students were able to visit him at times.
I remember otters. Retired museum cabinetmaker Joe Knueppelholz has a story of a deal cooked up with the Detroit Zoo to bring in a pair from their collection. Knueppelholz and museum maintenance man Aubrey Hart spent a month constructing a water slide for them, made of hand-smoothed concrete. When the otters arrived, they took one slide down, decided the concrete was too rough for them, and ignored it thereafter. To make matters worse, the otters were so old and decrepit that they died after only one week at the zoo. But I distinctly remember otters there, happily using the slide. Was I there for that magic week; or were there other otters?
In 1963 it was all over; the zoo was demolished to make way for an addition to the museum. A check with Curator Emeritus Reeve Bailey, who has worked at the museum almost continuously since the early 1930's, verifies the location: the south end of the east wing of the building sits over the spot formerly occupied by the zoo. Financial considerations were doubtlessly involved as well. And I suspect the zoo's mission had been fulfilled. The zoo was originally intended as an attraction to bring people to the museum, and the museum was by then a major attraction in its own right. And still is, as the fleets of school buses regularly seen parked next to it attest. In my researching I found lots of pictures of the museum in the 40's and 50's, including several postcards. But no postcards of the zoo, and only the one photo, seen above.
And the zoo was tiny. Today's animal activists would have been appalled at the size of the cages, especially for the bears. And packing three coyotes into one of those wedges would be unimaginable today.
There is a memorial of sorts to the zoo in the first floor landing of the museum; it features the photo above and the following text:
Museum Zoological Park (photograph circa 1931, courtesy of University of Michigan Museum of Zoology)
In 1929, a University of Michigan alumnus anonymously offered a collection of live native Michigan animals. It was the donor's hope that the animals could be enjoyed by children staying in the hospital then located across the street. A circular animal house and pond known as the "Museum Zoological Park" were constructed behind the Museums Building. Over the years, the zoo's inhabitants included a badger, a bobcat, a porcupine, a wolverine, skunks, otters, raccoons, snakes, turtles, amphibians, and a pair of black bears named "Maize" and "Blue". The zoo was demolished in 1963 and the animals relocated to other zoos and nature centers to make way for the Museum of Zoology addition.
As a child I could walk there. As an adult I remember it fondly, and credit it with being one of the reasons I went on years later to get a degree in biology from Kalamazoo College. I think a city needs a zoo.
Special thanks for those who helped me research this story: From the staff of the UM Exhibit Museum: Amy Harris, John Klausmeyer and Dan Madaj, and museum retiree Joe Knueppelholz, and emeriti Gerald Smith, Bill Dawson and Reeve Bailey. And thanks to the staff of the Bentley Historical Museum for hauling out the boxes of old museum records for me.Back to Observer stories page