Filed Under Great Depression

The Great Depression and the Zoo

Infrastructure and Insecurity

Cleveland's Brookside Zoo faced a crisis at the onset of the Great Depression. With Clevelanders going hungry, the city government was faced with the decision of whether to spend its limited resources caring for and feeding zoo animals.

The Great Depression was a trying time in the City of Cleveland. As early as 1931, nearly one third of the city's work force was unemployed, and things would only get worse. With an already growing economic divide between suburban communities and inner city residents, the depression hit those living in Cleveland the hardest; the tax base that financed local government all but dried up, leading to a financial crisis. Public funding for institutions such as parks and libraries were heavily cut, requiring that they operate on a shoestring budget. Brookside Zoo found itself in a predicament. While maintenance of park grounds could be delayed, animals in the zoo needed food and care. The economically conservative city government was unable to provide relief within its budget; as people were waiting in food lines, the decision to provide care for animals at the zoo raised a few eyebrows. The animal population dwindled, and existing structures and exhibits deteriorated.

Despite these setbacks, the depression era marked a period of incredible expansion and growth for both the Cleveland Metropolitan Park System and the City of Cleveland's Zoo. The Brookside Zoo offered free recreation, and droves of cash-strapped city residents visited its remains. Aiding in its revitalization, federal work relief programs provided the labor needed to completely overhaul Brookside Park and Zoo. The latter would emerge the economic crisis with both a new skeleton of an infrastructure and a foundation of public support, paving the way for a period of expansion in the 1940s.

A comment by Captain Curley Wilson in 1934 concerning the shape of the public zoo summed up the depression-era state of affairs: "Sixth city-and 25th zoo -- but what are you going to do when you haven't got any money?" Beginning his work as superintendent of the zoo in 1931, plans for development of the grounds had already been stilted by a lack of available city funding. All the while, attendance and usage of the free park increased due to both the newly found free time of the unemployed as well as the cautious spending habits of those with work.

Coming into his new job, Captain Wilson was initially charged with building the zoo to be on par with established zoological gardens in the United States. Efforts to remodel a bird preserve were undertaken, but plans for new structures were soon bypassed to meet the more immediate need of feeding animals. The new superintendent was instantly confronted with the staff's inability to afford adequate security at the zoo; a seal was killed at the hands of a bottle wielding vandal, birds were shot after-hours, and four locals executed a not-so-daring break-in to retrieve a pet monkey placed in the zoo's care by local police.

Providing a bit of salt for an open wound, the shrinking zoo needed to deny donations of new animals due to the cost of their upkeep. Even when zoo advocate Laura Mae Corrigan offered a donation in 1933 of 28 animals acquired on safari in Africa, the city was initially forced to refuse the gift. While it was known that the exotic animals would be an incredible boon to the zoological garden's validity as an institution, there was no available money to cover the cost of caring for the animals. Eventually, the widow of steel magnate James W. Corrigan padded her donation with a $5000 check to provide four years worth of food for the zoo's new inhabitants. The gift from Africa would act as the highlight of Brookside's collection during the Depression era.

Beyond Corrigan's generous gift, the zoo's infrastructure expanded greatly during the Depression era. A hefty list of construction projects was undertaken at the zoo and Brookside Park, utilizing work relief programs. Under the umbrella of the WPA, the zoo was provided two new exhibits - a Sea Lion pool and Monkey Island; runs for prairie dogs, guinea pigs and woodchucks were also constructed, and the bear pits were reconditioned. The grounds were rehabilitated with new roads, a lake, animal shelters, picnic grounds, and parking lots. All in all, Brookside Park and Zoo received much in the way of attention and resources from work relief programs.

A decade of depleted funding during the Great Depression also had its adverse effects. A 1940 inspection of the grounds found that nearly every building at the zoo leaked, and needed roofing and spouting. Most structures required painting and new plumbing, fencing throughout the zoo needed repaired or replaced, and the heating plant was due for a complete overhaul. The deteriorating remnants of Cleveland's early zoo structures littered the grounds which were redeveloped by work relief laborers. As the zoo emerged from the Great Depression, this contrast in the physical landscape aptly reflected the state of the institution; pushed forward by a resurgence in popularity and the evident possibilities for further expansion, the zoo's growth was restrained by its ties with Cleveland's Department of Recreation as just one of many public spaces in the city's vast park system.


WPA Rebuilds Brookside Park, ca. 1938
WPA Rebuilds Brookside Park, ca. 1938 In 1938, 3,600 WPA laborers worked in Brookside Park to remodel the zoo and develop an athletic center. The athletic field contained a swimming pool, eight baseball diamonds, eleven tennis courts, a football field, a running track and parking for 2,000 cars. Source: Images courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
A Depleted Budget, 1934
A Depleted Budget, 1934 Despite the available public funds to supply labor for development projects, the zoo struggled to feed and provide adequate care for its animals throughout the Great Depression. Source: Editorial Cartoon, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Monkey Island Construction, ca. 1935
Monkey Island Construction, ca. 1935 In 1934, the Cuyahoga County Relief Agency approved over $55,000 for the construction of Monkey Island at Brookside Zoo. Ten thousand dollars of these funds was to be paid by the city. The exhibit was the first major work relief project at the zoo. Using material from old Superior Viaduct and remains of the demolished downtown Ajax Building, initial plans for construction provided work to 240 skilled and semi-skilled laborers, and 124 unskilled workers. Source: Images courtesy of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Prairie Dog Enclosure, 1936
Prairie Dog Enclosure, 1936 Works Progress Administration projects at the zoo in 1935 paid general laborers $55 a month, and cementers $85 a month. City zoo keepers at Brookside in 1936 probably made a similar monthly amount, taking in $3.75 a day. The average annual monthly income in the United States that year was $125. Source: Images courtesy of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
A Tame Zoo, 1932
A Tame Zoo, 1932 In 1932, Sunshine - a 900 pound Russian bear - mauled and killed a zoo keeper. The death spurred local councilman Peter F. Reider to begin a campaign to 'denature' the zoo by removing dangerous animals from the grounds. The councilman's plan was captured nicely in his catchy slogan, "Feed people, not wild animals, they're too dangerous." Following a poll in a local paper, Reider claimed overwhelming public support for creating a "tame" zoo where carnivores would be replaced by birds and ponies. The legislation was voted down 22 to two. Reider would continue to act as a critic of the zoo throughout the Great Depression, often questioning the use of WPA funds for the construction of elaborate exhibits for animals rather than spaces that could be used by the public. Source: Editorial Cartoon, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Sea Lion Pool Construction, 1937
Sea Lion Pool Construction, 1937 Brookside Zoo was just one of many small zoos provided the opportunity by the WPA to expand during the Great Depression. Work relief projects at zoological gardens in urban centers throughout the United States used federal funding to build and repair facilities, create new exhibits, and develop landscapes. Cleveland's Sea Lion pool was located at the main entrance where it provided the zoo a much needed facelift after years of deterioration. Source: Images courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Children's Area, 1939
Children's Area, 1939 During the mid 1930s, the City of Cleveland's administration under Mayor Burton utilized much of the WPA labor force to develop parks and recreational facilities for the public. Beyond just the economic necessity of choosing projects that did not require high costs for materials, the Department of Recreation was operated under the premise that it was the government's obligation to provide recreation facilities to a public finding itself with increased amounts of free time. The development of these spaces was meant to combat juvenile delinquency and provide the city's residents with a wholesome use of its leisure time - which would otherwise cause the ruin of both children and adults. The original Children's Area at Brookside Zoo, constructed by the WPA in 1937, was heavily damaged by vandals before it could officially open. Source: Images courtesy of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
WPA Artists at the Zoo
WPA Artists at the Zoo In nearly every major city between 1935 and 1943, the WPA provided work assignments for unemployed artists. Excluding commissioned pieces, artists for the most part were able to choose the subject matter of their work. Many Cleveland WPA artists who were employed to create paintings, prints, illustrations, sculptures and lithographs visited the Brookside Zoo to perform animal studies. This print, Bears #2, was created by Cleveland artist Clarence Edward Zuelch circa 1939 to 1942. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Digital Gallery
Populating Monkey Island, 1936
Populating Monkey Island, 1936 Nathan Dauby, manager of the May Company, presented the City of Cleveland with a colony of 150 monkeys from Africa following the completion of Monkey Island in 1936. To save on the cost of feeding the island's many inhabitants during an economic crisis, the monkeys were sold by the city in the fall and replaced by a new colony each spring. Source: Images courtesy of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Empty Pool, 1939
Empty Pool, 1939 The $60,000 sea lion pool was nearly finished by the WPA in 1939. Needing both a fence and sea lions, the exhibit sat empty for a year. With each animal priced at $340, and being accompanied by an annual feeding cost of $600, the zoo was unable set aside the necessary funding to open its newest attraction. The costly concrete basin was reminder of the challenges faced by the public institution during the Great Depression. While work relief programs provided advances in zoo infrastructure, any progress was countered by the park's limited budget. Source: Images courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Polar Bear Attack, 1938
Polar Bear Attack, 1938 An unfortunate event that marred the success of work relief programs at the Brookside Zoo was the maiming and near-death of 21 year old WPA artist Judy Zemnick in 1938. With events recreated in the picture above, Judy was sketching a polar bear on top of a 12 foot stone column with her feet hanging into the enclosure. Underestimating the speed of the 600 pound animal, she was dragged into the cage and brutally mauled. After nearly 20 minutes, her body was pulled from the cage. Although she survived the attack, the young artist was severely scarred and lost an eye. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Pony Rides, 1939
Pony Rides, 1939 Pony rides were one of the most popular attractions of the zoo during the economic crisis. Introduced by 1928, zoo officials boasted of more than 1,000 free pony rides given to youngsters in a single day that year. With ten of the 19 ponies loaned to the zoo by an ice cream company, and due to their affordable diet of hay, pony rides proved to be a Depression-friendly attraction for the cash strapped park. It was believed that over 65,000 children had received rides during the 1937 season. The attraction continued to be highly anticipated summer fare for Cleveland's children through the mid century, and was only rivaled in popularity by the unveiling of adorable baby animals. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection


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Richard Raponi, “The Great Depression and the Zoo,” Cleveland Historical, accessed July 19, 2024,