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Cleveland's Zoo Goes on Safari

The Transition Away from Collection and Colonialism

Over ninety percent of all animals currently displayed in American zoos were born in captivity. Highly regulated breeding and exchange programs, however, replaced a much different method of acquiring zoo animals beginning in the 1960s.

A walk through the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo offers visitors a glimpse into a carefully curated society of animals from around the world. While the vast array of species provides a representation of life on different continents, it's highly unlikely that an inhabitant of the zoo has ever been outside of the United States. Over ninety percent of all animals displayed in zoos were born in captivity. Of course, this has not always been the case. Highly regulated breeding and exchange programs between zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums supplanted the practice of removing animals from their native environment.

The development of American zoos up until the 1960s hinged on an animal trade often steeped in colonialism, exploitation and a euro-centric worldview. It was an era characterized by famous animal traders and highly publicized trapping expeditions in distant lands. These excursions generated public interest and promoted a vision of zoos as educational institutions. Both the diversity of species provided by traders and a focus on big game animals helped draw in a curious public, and shaped what was expected of city zoos. In Cleveland, this period of institutionalization was pushed forward under the direction of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Zoo Director Fletcher Reynolds. In an effort to create a world-class zoo, expeditions were planned to Eastern Africa for the collection of animals in 1950, 1955, 1959 and 1960. The safaris aided in both the expansion of the zoo and its rebranding as an educational civic organization.

For the first half of the 20th century, the zoo primarily housed and exhibited domestic animals for the viewing pleasure of spectators strolling through park grounds. These animals were not only more affordable, but did not require specialized care. Dating back to the zoo's formative years, with Jepthia Wade's deeding of a deer herd to the city along with his land, the primary means of growing the native collection was through gifts. While animals were also purchased with park funds, these acquisitions were meant to enhance or replenish existing collections of domestic species.

In 1931, approximately 300 of the zoo's 420 animals were domestic species. The small collection of exotic animals housed by the zoo, though, was the highlight of the park. Animals such as lions, elephants and alligators were showcased in the scattershot menagerie, and acted as a gauge for the zoo's status. Generally acquired with donated funds or as gifts from prominent citizens, these non-domestic species were readily available due to an established animal trade in Africa, Asia and South America. The supply lines were set up to meet the demand of pet stores, vaudeville, circuses and private collectors by the middle of the 19th century. This international animal trade provided a framework from which American zoos developed. Species made available for sale would subsequently be identified with American zoological gardens.

With the transfer of management of the Brookside Zoo to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in 1940, the zoo slowly began to develop as a professional zoological garden. As part of this process, the new administration took an active approach to curating and expanding the collection. To emerge as a leading zoological garden required the acquisition of a diverse array of non-domestic species. The board replaced over 100 animals during its first year, and, soon after, discontinued the practice of indiscriminately accepting donations. Drawing upon the experience of prestigious zoological societies throughout the United States, an expedition was planned with the goal of both attracting public attention and bringing in new animals.

Fletcher Reynolds undertook Cleveland Zoological Park's first African expedition in 1950. During a three-month trip to the Cameroons in West Africa, Reynolds collected over 150 species of animals. While a safari conjures images of Reynolds chasing down game in the wilderness, the Zoo Director's main purpose was to examine and purchase animals from dealers. By personally heading the expedition, he set up supply lines that the Cleveland Zoological Park could use in the future. The zoo showcased its new inhabitants upon his return, which included baby gorillas, chimpanzees, venomous reptiles, birds, a cheetah and a leopard. In addition, Reynolds returned to Cleveland with photographs and film of the expedition. These were presented to a public fascinated with Africa. The animals and images brought back from the Cameroons were meant to be evidence of Cleveland Zoo's evolution into an educational resource for Natural History.

The next animal collecting expedition occurred in 1955. Plans to construct a state-of-the-art $600,000 Pachyderm Building were made with the passage of a bond issue in 1952. The objective of the safari was to obtain elephants, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses and giraffes from East Africa to inhabit and promote interest in the new exhibit. The trip proved successful; with $65,000 slated for the purchase of animals from dealers, the zoo also acquired tortoises, birds, baboons, monkeys, a cheetah and a wildebeest. The massive freight was transported by ship from East Africa to New York.

Later expeditions sponsored by the Zoo were of a much smaller scale, but were meant to meet the same ends as the previous safaris. A 1959 expedition to Africa acquired over a hundred birds and what would become one of the zoo's most iconic inhabitants - Karen the Bongo. At the time, Karen was the only bongo in captivity; both her capture and the expedition were a symbol of the zoo's rising prestige and status as a valuable civic asset. The final zoo-sanctioned safari occurred in 1960. Working with the Board of Education, a ten-week animal identification competition was held by the Cleveland Zoo that culminated in the naming of two students to accompany an expedition to East Africa. Despite the trip being cut short due to political and social unrest in the African nations, the zoo acquired 18 birds, two chimpanzees, and three monkeys.

That same year, seventeen African countries declared independence. With the dismantling of colonial influence in Africa, the age of collecting expeditions for the Cleveland Zoo came to an end. While the established animal trade would remain a means for purchasing new animals, the conservation movement of the 1960s would help bring into question both the ethics and environmental impact of removing animals from their native habitat. The focus of the Cleveland Zoological Park was redirected towards internal development, rather than the accumulation of animal species.


Cleveland Zoo Expedition, 1960
Cleveland Zoo Expedition, 1960 The purpose of the 1960 expedition to East Africa extended beyond just collecting animals. Reflective of the growing influence of environmentalism, a goal of the safari was to observe the natural habitat of animals to aid in the creation of more realistic and humane zoo exhibits. The safari attendees included photographer Herb Rebman, Zoo Director Dr. Leonard Goss, two winners of the Zoo safari contest, former U.S. Attorney Sumner Canary, and representatives from trip sponsors Stouffer Corp., Barker & Sons Co., and Thompson Ramo Wooldridge Inc. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Captain Curley Wilson and Frank Buck, 1934
Captain Curley Wilson and Frank Buck, 1934 The crossing over of personnel between circuses, zoos and the animal trade was commonplace, and helped foster relationships that promoted the growth and development of each institution. Captain Curley Wilson, Superintendent of the Brookside Zoo from 1931 to 1942, spent much of his life working in traveling circuses and briefly worked as a trapper. Famous animal trader Frank Buck, who donated two elephants to the Brookside Zoo, also regularly worked at circuses. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Animal Donation, 1933
Animal Donation, 1933 Many members of upper class society also had direct ties to the animal trade. Naturalists, collectors of exotic animals, hunters and curious tourists partook in excursions for wild game; in some cases where the trophies were captured alive, the animals were eventually donated to zoos. Pictured above is the arrival of lions donated by Laura Mae Corrigan, a zoo advocate and wife of Cleveland steel magnate James W. Corrigan. In 1933, Corrigan donated 28 animals to the Brookside Zoo that she collected on Safari in Africa. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Africa Screams, 1949
Africa Screams, 1949 The animal trade industry provided stories of adventure in foreign lands to the public. Traders became celebrities, many of whom supplemented their income by appearing in films, regaling the public with tales on the vaudeville circuit, or publishing accounts of their harrowing experiences and brushes with death. Source: Advertisement
The Cleveland Browns Zoo Benefit, 1949
The Cleveland Browns Zoo Benefit, 1949 Funding for the 1950 safari was raised in part from an exhibition football game between the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers. Despite the game's poor attendance of 31,000, the owner of the Browns presented the zoo with a check for $25,000.00. Source: Editorial Cartoon, Cleveland Plain Dealer
Fletcher Reynolds, 1950
Fletcher Reynolds, 1950 Through the operations of their business, animal traders established relationships with governments and local populations throughout the world, navigated the legal system of various countries, developed methods for safely transporting and caring for animals, and cultivated knowledge concerning both the accessibility and adaptability of wild game. Many American zoo administrators and curators, including Cleveland Zoo's Fletcher Reynolds, learned their trade and developed invaluable relationships through working in the animal trade. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Penguin Order, 1945
Penguin Order, 1945 Until the middle of the 20th century, the international animal trade was predominately supplied by colonized counties in Africa and Asia. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
West Africa, 1950
West Africa, 1950 At the time of the 1950 collecting expedition, there were only four independent nations in Africa. In 1960, the year of Cleveland Zoo's final expedition, fourteen countries declared their independence as nation-states. By the mid 1960s, all but six African countries had been freed from colonial rule. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Fletcher Reynolds, 1950
Fletcher Reynolds, 1950 Zoo Director Fletcher Reynolds, who undertook the 1950 African expedition, was no stranger to the animal trade. One of his jobs before coming to Cleveland had been to collect wild animals in South America for zoos and circuses. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Stouffer's Safari, 1955
Stouffer's Safari, 1955 The 1955 collecting expedition to East Africa was financed by local businessmen Gordon and Vernon Stouffer of Stouffer's Corporation and Frederick Crawford of Thompson Products. The Stouffer brothers also used the Safari as a means to test out a new idea; three one-pound packages of frozen cooked food was packed in dry ice and shipped to East Africa. The first meal of the excursion included Lobster Newberg, spinach loaf, Swiss steak, and French fried shrimp. This dinner was promoted by the Stouffers in the Cleveland Plain Dealer as the "beginning of a new era in food industry," where "frozen cooked foods can be made available to people in any part of the world." Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Safari Trip Contest, 1960
Safari Trip Contest, 1960 Two boys accompanied the collecting party as gusts of honor during the 1960 safari. To secure their place on the trip, they each participated in a ten week animal identification and essay contest. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
East Africa Expedition, 1955
East Africa Expedition, 1955 During the first half of the 36 day excursion to East Africa in 1955, Fletcher Reynolds and his son worked with local animal dealers to secure the purchase of small animals and birds. The second phase of the trip was a safari expedition through Arusha, for the purpose of capturing large game. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection
Captured Animals, 1955
Captured Animals, 1955 The 1955 expedition to East Africa was the largest animal collecting excursion led by the Cleveland Zoo. Headed by professional hunter and animal dealer W. de Beer of Arusha, the trapping party included Fletcher Reynolds, Reynold's son and 25 indigenous helpers. Also joining the African Safari were trip financiers and zoo advocates Gordon Stouffer and Frederick Crawford, both of whom were accompanied by their wives. Source: Images courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
West Africa Safari, 1950
West Africa Safari, 1950 With funding available to the Cleveland Zoo for expansion in the late 1940s, major projects included the construction of a new Water Fowl Sanctuary, the Hoofed Animal Yards and the Bird Building. The collecting expedition to the Cameroons in 1950 was undertaken to both help stock and peek public interest in the new exhibits. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections
Guarding Livestock, 1960
Guarding Livestock, 1960 The Cleveland Zoo's 1960 expedition to Kenya and Tanganyika in Eastern Africa was nearly canceled due to political instability in the region. Tanganyika and Kenya gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1961 and 1963, respectively. Source: Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections


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Richard Raponi, “Cleveland's Zoo Goes on Safari,” Cleveland Historical, accessed July 13, 2024,