The Potawatomi Zoo began as a modest duck pond in Leeper Park in the spring of 1902. Originally called the South Bend Zoo, it is the oldest zoo in Indiana. The venue saw minimal growth and the location was changed in 1912 when a herd of deer were moved to Potawatomi Park. The new zoo was based out of a house on Wall Street, which had been used by the Anti-Tuberculosis League to house TB patients
In 1917 buffalo were placed in a quarter acre yard within Potawatomi Park. The zoo was expanded to 10 acres in 1927. In 1936, the Work Progress Administration built the zoo’s first permanent structure which was the Cat House. This building still stands today and is known as the WPA building and currently houses one species of leopard. A pair of male oxen was purchased in 1937, from the Chicago stockyards, and was used to clear trees in the park.
The animal report for 1947 showed four black bears, one polar bear, two African lions, five bison, 3 fallow deer, seven sika deer, nine elk, four guanacos, three dwarf zebu, eight Barbary sheep, three caracal sheep, one African wild ass, two oxen, four domestic goats, eight raccoons, two peacocks, and four rhesus monkeys displayed at the zoo.
In 1949 a farm barn, 25 feet wide 20 feet long and two stories high, was built for the domesticated animals. In 1950, approval was given for a small bird and animal shelter to be erected at the park at a cost of approximately $500.00
The year 1963 saw the birth of a capuchin monkey at the zoo, this was the first South American primate to be born at the zoo. During 1965 vandals stole “Toro”, the zoo ocelot, who was later found by city police in the trunk of a car. This incident made national news when it was reported by Paul Harvey on his newscast.
In 1970, a three-phase zoo renovation was presented and a new barn was built for the zoo farm. Wallabies were displayed at the zoo for the first time, and the St. Joseph Zoological Society (renamed the Potawatomi Zoological Society) was formed, for the purpose of raising funds and awareness for the zoo.
Mr. Craig D. McCowan officially became the first zoo director of the Potawatomi Zoo in 1971. Craig had previously held the title of Assistant Zookeeper and had worked at the zoo since 1954.
A new barn silo was completed in 1972 along with a concrete pond, bridge and wishing well. Also the rare birth of a tamadua or lesser anteater occurred at the zoo, possibly the first in captivity, unfortunately the infant did not survive. The zoo displayed venomous reptiles for the first time in the form of two rattlesnakes and a cottonmouth moccasin. Biology students from Washington High School raised the funds to purchase a pair of wallabies. The Mishawaka Welcome Wagon Club raised money for new animal signs for the zoo. The River Park Lions Club donated a lion’s head drinking fountain.
In 1973, ZooPlan Associates of Wichita, Kansas was hired by the Zoological Society to develop a master plan, which was completed in 1974 and presented on May 13 to Mr. Jack Jones and Dr. Marlin Perkins at a gala dinner held at Erskine Club House. The River Park Lions club purchased a dromedary camel for the zoo.
1975 was an exciting year with the first African leopard named “Princess” born at the zoo and the first macaw hatching of two blue and gold macaw chicks. An escape of the male bull elk and the theft of various snakes, including one of the rattlesnakes occurred. Fortunately, everything was returned without anyone sustaining injuries.
In 1977, the passage of a 1.5 million dollar bond issue allowed for the first substantial renovation and expansion of the zoo. At this time the zoo grew to its current size of 23 acres, demolishing most of the old zoo. New exhibits were built according to modern techniques to promote aesthetics and better animal health care and the new hay storage barn was erected at this time.
Animals were moved into the completed Coati Building and service building in 1978. These two buildings were the first to be completed from the bond issue funds.
The first phase of the master plan was completed in 1979 which included Chimpanzee Island, Lion and Mouflon Exhibit, Bear Grotto, Eurasian and African hoofed animal yards. The Learning Center was also started in 1979 and opened to the public on April 4, 1980. This building was made possible by a $380,000 gift from the Stanley A. and Flora Clark and Muessel-Ellison foundation and the National Bank and Trust Company of South Bend. This learning center serves as the Zoo’s entrance complex, containing the administrative offices, public restrooms, admission window, classroom, and also features 18 exhibits representing the diversity of the animal kingdom and the habitats they live in. Mr. Ben Miller was hired as the zoo’s first education coordinator.
In 1981, the zoo began charging admission, thus enabling an accurate count of attendance. Zoo visitors who paid admission totaled 175,638 while 24,660 took advantage of free admission on Saturday morning. Total visitation of 200,298 produced $98,500 in admission revenues. The Bennet Wallabies reproduced for the first time at the zoo with four new joeys. The zoo society hosted its first “Zoofari” event. In 1982, the first “Zooltide” took place. The zoo displayed its first antelope species, one male and two female blackbuck from Asia.
The old world monkey exhibit was funded through local foundations. In addition to this $300,000 exhibit, the Zoological Society funded a major graphics project as part of the Old World Monkey Exhibit experience. The exhibit opened in 1984 with the graphics section completed in 1986. The zoo also had its first great ape birth in the form of a female chimpanzee. The zoo also suffered the tragic loss of an adult female chimpanzee by drowning. Also in 1986, Carlotta, the baby Condor pecked her way through the shell. She was given to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. This was a special event, because in 1985 only four baby condors were reared in the United States.
A new Zoo Farm exhibit was completed in 1988 at the cost of $250,000 and was funded by the Zoo Society, a local foundation and the City of South Bend. There were six exhibits featuring domesticated animals from Africa, Asia and South America, the area also features a pony ride.
In 1990 Johnny Martinez became Director of the Zoo. A North American Prairie exhibit was opened in August of 1990, featuring Bison and Black Tailed Prairie Dogs. Local foundations and the City of South Bend again funded this exhibit.
Capital Projects for the 1990’s often involved improving existing exhibits.
In 1991 the first staff veterinarian, Dr. Ann Duncan, was hired. In addition to her veterinary duties she also served as the Assistant Director
In 1992 Flamingos were added to the Zoo’s collection and in 1993 the Snow Leopards were put on exhibit.
Construction on the Chimpanzee Indoor Habitat began in 1994 and was opened in 1995, providing an indoor exhibit space for these apes. The first hatchling of an African Black Footed penguin occurred in December, she was suitably named, “Christmas”. Area children also raised over $6,000 in funds through the “Pennies for Penguins” project. This allowed the Zoo to purchase 15 more penguins and a new freezer to house fish for them. The zoo concession stand and gift shop were transferred to the City from the Zoological Society.
The ornamental Koi Pond was built in 1997. Over the next two years the bear grottos were refurbished to include glass viewing and additional water features for the animals. 1999 featured the debut of the Alligator house, as well as The Warthog exhibit
The Zoological Society annual meeting was held in February of 2000 with wildlife biologist, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz as the guest speaker. Jim Fowler of Mutual of Omaha revisited the zoo and had a program at IUSB where he displayed several different species of animals.
In May of 2000, the tropical discovery section of the learning center was opened allowing visitors to view some of our smaller animals, such a poison dart frogs, tarantulas, chameleons, etc. This exhibit was funded by Mrs. Jones-Kopence, Mrs. Polk, The City of South Bend, the Zoological Society, and our own staff veterinarian, Dr. Curtis Eng. The new Zebra exhibit opened in October of 2000.
The construction of the new veterinary hospital began in 2001. This $1,200.000 project was completed in early 2002 and is a state of the art facility.
In March of 2002 the Potawatomi Zoo turned 100 years old. A yearlong celebration honored the event with monthly festivities, education programs and notable guests including Jack Hanna and the Kratt Brothers. 2002 also saw the opening of the Radiology Inc. Red Panda Forest.
In August of 2002, tragedy struck the zoo, when wild dogs made their way into the zoo and killed all but one of our Wallaby’s. The surviving baby wallaby, Sydney, was sent to the Columbus Zoo, where they raised her until her return to the zoo.
The cotton top tamarins were introduced to zoo visitors in 2003. Shortly after their arrival twin tamarins were born.
In 2004, the Zoo Train opened a 1/3-scale replica of a C.P. Huntington Locomotive. The ½ mile ride takes zoo-goers past the front pond, bison yard, veterinary hospital and Australia. The Zoo received national recognition by being named one of the nations top 20 zoos for Families by “Child Magazine.” The ankole cattle arrived at the zoo, and the new Zoo entrance was opened.
The old world monkey exhibit was expanded in 2005 so that both the Colobus and DeBrazza monkeys could be on display at the same time.
In 2006 the Lion’s exhibit was expanded, and an additional exhibit was built to house the Diana Monkey’s or a mixed species.
African wild dogs will be one of the new exhibits when the zoo opens in 2007.