Filed Under Recreation

Reinventing Cleveland's Zoo

Education and Recreation for the Whole Family

Cleveland's public zoo was reinvented during the 1940s, paving the way for it to become one of the city's most popular attractions. What changed?

Did you know that zoos and aquariums in the United States attract nearly 175 million visitors a year? While not taking into account repeat visitors, this staggering number is over half of the entire population of the county. With two-thirds of all adults in attendance having a child in tow, the popularity of these institutions can partly be attributed to their successful development as spaces for both education and recreation. In Cleveland, efforts toward this end were realized by the public zoo during the 1940s, and symbolized by a name change from the Brookside Zoo to the Cleveland Zoological Park. With a new name, and under new leadership, the Cleveland Zoo was physically reinvented as a site for children and families. Both exhibits were constructed and resources developed to attract the new target audience. By focusing on expanding its role as a space for education while simultaneously cultivating an enjoyable experience for young patrons, the Cleveland Zoological Park established itself as both a valuable and popular civic institution by the end of the 1950s.

During its first fifty years in existence, Wade Park Zoo and Brookside Zoo were far from prestigious institutions. Despite waves of public interest, the zoo received its fair share of complaints concerning stagnated development and physical deterioration. By the late 1930s, legislation had even been introduced to the City Council to abolish the zoo; this prompted the Cleveland Federation of Women's Club to advocate for the creation of a proper zoological society to manage the grounds. While this idea had been previously suggested and researched, the plans finally resonated enough with the City Council and Cleveland's public to be put into action.

The tide turned for the Cleveland Zoo in August of 1940. Cleveland's City Council voted to transfer management of the zoo from the city to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The non-profit, private organization was appropriated $50,000 a year, and proceeded to install a board of thirty leading citizens; the board created the position of 'Director,' and brought in Fletcher Reynolds to oversee the institution's development in 1942. While the growth of the zoo moved slowly due to its limited resources during World War II, the grounds and existing animal habitats were immediately cleaned and beautified. In October of 1944, the zoo was given a new name and fresh start as the Cleveland Zoological Park.

The new Cleveland Zoo quickly developed itself as an educational resource. The basement of the main zoo building was converted into a classroom, education and entertainment programs were created, a miniature train was added as an attraction, and a traveling zoo visited parks throughout the city to offer children a chance to both learn about and play with zoo animals. Once revenue became available for physical expansion, a Children's Zoo featuring a fairy tale theme park was added to the grounds. Coinciding with the construction of new exhibit spaces and the introduction of many exotic species to the animal collection, the mid-century zoo had emerged as a popular destination for Clevelanders. While reports of 50,000 daily visitors during the late 1940s were probably greatly exaggerated, each added attraction and shipment of new animals was accompanied by claims of record attendance in local papers.

Cleveland Zoological Park continued to expand and focus on children's attractions and educational programming throughout the 1950s. School visits and art classes became a commonplace sight at the zoo, and a teacher from the Cleveland Board of Education worked onsite beginning in 1951. Additional petting and feeding exhibits were also developed, and Fletcher Reynolds regularly presented informational radio broadcasts. Cleveland's public zoo became a space associated with children, their education and recreation. In turn, it attracted an audience of parents seeking to promote the betterment of their offspring.

While the public's usage of zoos remained recreational in nature, zoos materialized their role as educational institutions - a transition that guided development to present day. While numerous changes have taken place since the 1950s in how Cleveland's zoo is operated, designed and marketed, the prestige and success of the institution remains intertwined with a perceived educational value. Attracting more than one million visitors a years, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has grown into one of the city's most popular attractions.


The Good Old Days of Swimming at the Cleveland Zoo The swimming pool was always a popular destination for children visiting Cleveland's Zoo. Agnes Kingsley shares her memories of sneaking into the zoo for a day of swimming. Creator: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks
Summertime at the Cleveland Zoo Linda Hnath recalls the highlights of her childhood summer visits to Cleveland's zoo during the 1950s and 1960s. Creator: Courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks


Bunny Village, 1946
Bunny Village, 1946 Bunny Village, a popular attraction at the Children's Zoo in the late 1940s, provided a miniature church, school, blacksmith shop, general store and homes for its furry populace to inhabit. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Feeding Time, ca. 1940
Feeding Time, ca. 1940 Pictured, Frieda the elephant is being fed "num-nums" outside the Animal House. While the indiscriminate tossing of handouts to zoo animals by visitors was always discouraged at the Cleveland Zoological Park, the feeding times of cat animals, sea lions and penguins were daily highlights during the 1950s. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Name the Giraffe, 1962
Name the Giraffe, 1962 Animal naming competitions were a common way to promote public interest in newly acquired or recently born animals at zoos. With the birth of a giraffe at the zoo in August of 1962, WHK Radio and the Cleveland Zoo sponsored a "Name the Giraffe" contest. With over 1150 entries submitted, first prize was awarded to April Zuravel for her suggestion of "Topsee"; the young winner was introduced to the new born giraffe and $50 worth of toys from F. A. O. Schwartz Toy Chest. Source: Images courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Children's Farm, ca 1959
Children's Farm, ca 1959 For a 15-cent admission, the Children's Farm offered its young visitors a chance to pet or feed a rotating cast of domestic animals, which included rabbits, sheep, lambs, chickens, and an owl. The animals were initially loaned to the zoo by farmers for the summer season. Source: Images courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
The Children's Farm, 1959
The Children's Farm, 1959 Replacing the Children's Zoo, the Children's Farm was opened in 1959. Construction of the famous red barn was financed by the Cleveland Rotary Club. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Guinea Pig Village, 1941
Guinea Pig Village, 1941 New runs and rat-proof housing for prarie dogs, guinea pigs and woodchucks were among the many projects completed during the renovation of Brookside Zoo by WPA labor. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
The Zoo Railroad
The Zoo Railroad Initially connecting Bunny Village and Turtle Town in the Children's Zoo, and later expanding outward into the park, the Zoo operated a series of miniature trains beginning in the mid 1940s. Pictured is Fletcher Reynolds operating a miniature General Electric Diesel-Electric Streamliner manufactured by the Bornstein Concession Company of Kansas City. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Zoo Circus, 1947
Zoo Circus, 1947 A companion to the Children's Zoo, the Zoo Circus was an annual summertime display during the 1940s. The thirty minute shows included lions, ponies, a bear, and monkey acrobats. Distinguishing itself from traveling circuses of the time, the popular spectacle was meant to show the extent to which animals could be taught through kindness. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Zoo Rangers, 1956
Zoo Rangers, 1956 To spark the interest of school children in the zoo, as well as promote the dedication of the new Pachyderm Building, thousands of school children were sworn in as Zoo Rangers in 1956. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Children's Farm, 1980
Children's Farm, 1980 While the Children's Farm remained a popular space for the zoo's young patron's to participate in hands-on learning about animals, the extent of the education desired by much of the public had its limits; in 1985, news that the farm animals were re-purposed as food for other zoo inhabitants at the end of the season threatened to close the exhibit. While federal health code requirements implemented in the late 1960s did not allow for the animals to be returned to farms due to the potential for exposure to diseases carried by exotic zoo animals, the zoo agreed to revise its practices and the animals it displayed in the Children's Farm. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
A New Beginning, 1946
A New Beginning, 1946 The rebirth of Cleveland's zoo was symbolized in its renaming as the Cleveland Zoological Park in 1944. With management of the grounds placed under the direction of a highly specialized administration that was focused solely on its growth, the zoo quickly began to both distinguish itself from and develop an identity outside of the city's park system. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Walt Disney Visits the Zoo, 1961
Walt Disney Visits the Zoo, 1961 Known for his work in creating films adored by the public and running a popular amusement park, Walt Disney was brought in by zoo administrators to consult on improvements to the Cleveland Zoo. Disney offered his expertise in dramatizing animal exhibits and improving methods for displaying animals. Source: Images courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo


3900 Wildlife Way, Cleveland, OH


Richard Raponi, “Reinventing Cleveland's Zoo,” Cleveland Historical, accessed June 13, 2024,