The Kirby Park Zoo–An Unrealized Vision
In 2009, archaeologists discovered strange animal burials in the Egyptian capital of Hierakonpolis that suggests the existence of a large animal menagerie around 3500 B.C. that included baboons, wildcats and two elephants. These animals were buried in the city’s elite cemetery, where rulers and their family members were also interred, along with evidence indicating that these powerful rulers kept the animals in captivity, almost like a zoo. These animals were given special treatment in death, buried in human fashion and even sometimes accompanied by a human figurine.
This was an important archaeological discovery because for the longest time the first zoo that we knew about was started around 1150 B.C. by a Chinese emperor that contained many kinds of deer, birds and fish. This 1,500 acre zoo was called the “Garden of Intelligence” and was kind of like our modern zoos with one huge exception; it was kept for the amusement of the Emperor and his Court and was not open to the public.
It is widely believed that the first public zoo was established by Queen Hatshepsut in 1500 B.C., in ancient Egypt, by collecting animals from all over Africa. Throughout history, zoos have been built to show a leader’s wealth & power. The oldest zoo still in existence today is located in Vienna on the grounds of the Schönbrunn Palace and was initially founded as an imperial menagerie in 1752. The first public zoological garden in the world, the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, was opened in 1793.
Like most things that man builds, zoos are a reflection of our values—-throughout history, our relationship with animals can give us insight about where we were as a society.
During the Age of Enlightenment, when Darwin was like a science rock star, zoos represented science as a mission. This is when some of the earliest official zoos began, like the London Zoo in 1828 and America’s first zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo, in 1874. This was also the Romantic Age, when beauty had the utmost value and zoos were also becoming a place for socializing. The architectural style was ornate & dramatic while “Houses” were in vogue—Cat House, Bird House, etc. But, sadly for the inhabitants, appearance was more important than function, and animals were seen as beautiful objects, rather than living beings, so the cages were inadequate and as a result, life expectancy was short.
The next incarnation of the zoo reflected the fact that the world was in the midst of several wars, and as a result, the study of nature seemed much less important than it did during the height of Darwin’s celebrity, but the Age of Romanticism still existed and zoos were treated as living art galleries where exhibits were turned into mini-paintings or real-life sculptures with visually designed “proper” landscapes. This style’s popularity was short-live at first, because everyone seemed to be adopting the modernist movement in zoo design, including the architects who designed the now defunct Nay Aug Park Zoo in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Modernism was all about function and reflected man’s advances in medicine. At that time, zoos were designed for quick sterilization and exhibits were created so they could easily be hosed down on a regular basis. This usually meant concrete structures with clean lines, and a simplified modern style that was influenced by the Modernist Art movement, creating zoo exhibits that looked more like the setting for a sculpture rather than an animal habitat. This movement in zoo design did actually help to extend the life expectancy for zoo animals, but did little to address their mental well-being.
Since that time, we have evolved to develop a strong sense of animal rights and environmental awareness so our modern zoo exhibits reflect not only a sense of beauty, recalling once again the Age of Romanticism, but also strive to achieve a higher standard of physical and mental health accommodations for the inhabitants. Exhibits are now designed to recreate the animal’s natural habitat while also attempting to incorporate the visitor into the surroundings as if they are immersed in the landscape.
Luzerne County attempted to become a contender in the world of community zoos with mixed results during the 1930s thru the early 1940s. On one hand, the Kirby Park Zoo was able to boast about accommodating somewhere between 2,000 to 3,000 visitors during the weekend in the summer months (Wow! If only we could find something that could do that now, huh?! ) according to local newspaper reports and on the other hand, it was dogged by claims of animal cruelty and flooding.
I became intrigued with the notion that a zoo used to exist in Kirby Park when the grandmother of a friend told us about it when we were young. I was so fascinated by the structures that still stand in Kirby Park today that have been identified by the local papers as “zoo ruins” that I attempted to research what the structures were used for with surprising results! (Follow the link to learn more!) Since my last post, The Hoyt Library has generously made the plans for the Clark Wright Evans “zoological building” available for viewing by the public (They remind me of The Nay Aug Park Zoo in Scranton):
Cheri, I am a reference librarian at the Hoyt. We were not able to contact you on your MSN email account but found this page and wanted to let you know the Kirby Zoo blueprints are here on the second floor of the library! Stop in at the desk and we can help you further your research efforts! ~~ Kathleen Bednarek
The following information about the Kirby Park Zoo was provided via email by Larry Newman, past president of the Wyoming Valley Historical Society (now the Luzerne County Historical Society).
While the zoo may not have been part of the original plans for the park, it was definitely in place by 1932, because we know that Wilkes-Barre architect Clark Wright Evans (architect of the Westmoreland Club and what is now King’s College’s Luksik Hall) designed a “zoological building” for Kirby Park in that year. The plans were advertised for bid in the 11/9/1932 edition of the Philadelphia Real Estate Record and Builders Guide, and at least some of Evans’ drawings for the zoological building, dated Sept. 1932, are included in the inventory of Evans’ remaining architectural plans, which are housed at the Hoyt Library in Kingston. The index to those plans notes that the building was “destroyed by flooding in 1936” – but the articles quoted below make me wonder whether it was ever built in the first place. As a matter of fact, based on contemporary newspaper descriptions of the zoo (copied below), it’s hard to conclude that any of the “ruins” in today’s Kirby Park Natural Area were ever part of the zoo.~~ Larry Newman
Mr. Newman cited the following information from newspaper articles showing that the zoo did not close because of the 1936 flood:
An article on Page A-3 of the March 29, 1936 Sunday Independent, titled “Zoo at Kirby Park Regains Occupants,” read:
“Tranquility once again prevails at Kirby Park zoo. Turmoil, provoked by high water of the Susquehanna, routed all animals, the rescue work being carried out by city employees under direction of Park Supervisor Tom Phillips. Last night the “refugees” were back home. Only one casualty, the male buffalo, was listed. Poisoned food hastened the end of the quadruped, according to Councilman John Nobelt. A female buffalo, all fox, rabbits, groundhog, honey bears, monkeys and the eagle were quartered in the 109th armory during the flood.
Three bears, cynosure of all juveniles visiting Kirby Park, withstood ravages of the disaster. The water came up so rapidly they could not be rescued and were forced to perch atop a stone house inside a cage. The animals were foodless for five days and did virtually no sleeping during the flood period. Over four feet of water swept through the bears’ habitat.
Alas and alack – Pete, the pet gose [sic], joined his colleagues yesterday. Pete laughed at “Old Man River” when it began to swell. The winged pet watched the water flow over the west shore and continued to smile. On the third day Pete was hungry. He emulated Johnny Weismuller and swam all the way to Edwardsville, where he was picked up by two youths. The boys, fearful of prosecution, returned Pete yesterday to the park and they were told arrests would not follow. So all again is peaceful with the speechless population of Kirby Park.”
One year later, an article about the Kirby Park zoo on Page A-13 of the March 28, 1937 Sunday Independent listed the Kirby Park zoo’s inhabitants:
“There are seven monkeys, one baboon, two parrots, three macaws from South America, two raccoons, three foxes, about two dozen pigeons, three horned owls, four sheep, five bear, two wild goats from South America, one North American goat, one buffalo and two geese.”
In the same 1937 article, Ernest Vivian, the zookeeper, noted that the Kirby Park zoo could not accommodate additional animals:
“’If we had a larger and more substantial set of buildings than we have now, we could handle more of the gifts people are continually offering us but right now it’s impossible to take care of them.’ What were some of the animals offered as gifts? ‘Well, for example, pheasants and peacocks. We had to turn them down. We hadn’t any room and nothing could be done right now.
Also from the same article, ‘The snakes and alligators the zoo had were given up. The snakes dug out of their pit one day and there wasn’t any way of keeping them safe unless we had a concrete base and a glass cage. But we have a lot of other animals here and the children and their parents will find that in a few weeks, when we open up, the collection will be as fine if not better than ever.”’
“When summer is in full swing, between 2,000 and 3,000 people visit on Sunday and about the same number come in during the six week days.
Wilkes-Barre has a fine zoo for the amount of money expended on it. However, if the straitened financial conditions of the city ever are arranged so that a permanent structure can be built, the improvement would improve the zoo many fold.”
However, improvements never came. An article on Page A-4 of the April 14, 1940 Sunday Independent stated:
“Announcement that the Kirby Park zoo probably will be reduced to a monkey house – and nothing more – shows the change of the years. It’s not so long ago that most ambitious plans were in the air for the Kirby Park zoo. The park department still has some pretty pictures of the plans that were made. It was hoped to have a splendid building, big runways and everything to permit the animals to live as nearly as they do in natural surroundings. There were hopes of expansion so that a great variety of animals would be on display, for the amusement and education of the entire valley. That is a far cry from latest plans to have a monkey house – and nothing more. And it’s all a matter of money. In the old days the trust fund provided by Fred M. Kirby for the upkeep of the park brought in from $25,000 to $28,000 every year . . . Then came the depression. Now the amount the fund gives the city – after a couple of years of nothing at all – is about half what it used to be . . . Blame the depression.”
Less than one month later, however, a grim story on Page A-11 of the May 5, 1940 Sunday Independent, titled “Filth at Kirby Park Zoo Forced Humane Society to Act,” painted a different picture and pointed the blame at people (as opposed to money):
“The Kirby Park Zoo, for which the city of Wilkes-Barre spent thousands of dollars to establish (sounds a little Sterling-esque, huh?!) and many more thousands to maintain, has turned out to be a filth-infested, highly unsanitary “haven” for wild birds and animals (also fits the current description of the Hotel Sterling, am I right?!) . Because health conditions are deplorable, reaching the point where the majority of the animal populace has either died or been killed off, the zoo now must be abandoned.
Survey of the situation yesterday revealed the fact that there are but two bears, one silver fox and a horned owl, outside of a flock of monkeys, remaining in the penned areas. The Luzerne County Humane Society has interested itself in the situation, as a step in clearing up matters, paid $25 to take over everything but the monkeys. The city will maintain cages for these. . . .
In addition to filth brought by high river water, and given only western exposure and wooden houses when eastern exposure and concrete shelters are needed, it is reported thousands of rats have infested the pens at Kirby Park to aggravate a bad situation. These rats made life miserable for other animals by stealing food and, it is believed, spread disease among the inmates.
In addition to the drowning of a silver fox and two goats in the recent flood, three bears recently “murdered” each other and killed a cub, the two buffalo and a calf have passed away, while none of the ten deer survived. It is believed the zoo was improperly located from the start, situated in soggy ground, and another matter that enters into the picture is the fact that feeding and care of the animals in recent years was but a sideline of caretakers at the West Side park.”
The May 5, 1940 story concluded by describing how the Humane Society planned to release the two bears into the woods of Noxen Mountain.
Less than one month later, a column on Page A-9 of the May 12, 1940 Sunday Independent mourned the Kirby Park Zoo’s demise:
“To all intents and purposes the Kirby Park Zoo – the Wilkes-Barre City Zoo – has gone and the fact that it had to go, plus the manner of its passing, is not exactly a boost for the town.
The zoo was situated in a park, the upkeep of which along with that of the animals, was provided for by the philanthropy of Fred M. Kirby.
Naturally, the income from the bonds Mr. Kirby provided has shrunk, but hardly is it likely that it has shrunk as much as the park of which the city once was so proud.
Conceived as a place of beauty for the city, the main expanse of the park has been taken over to a great extent by the dike leaving, with the zoo gone, several baseball fields on the flat stretch next to the armory and, nearby, the tennis courts.
Worst of all, however, was the action of the Humane Society in “buying” the animals. This, they said, they felt was necessary in order to live up to the creed of their organization. They did not consider the animals were being treated in a humane manner at the zoo.
Life will go on in Wyoming Valley, of course, as it did before. Many other little niceties also could go and some people seem intent on removing them too, getting the general population down to the elementary necessities of eating, drinking, sleeping and working.
But the zoo was enjoyed by many – including the children. It added just a bit to their pleasure and helped make the park and the city of which we boast more complete. It also is to be noted that many other cities, unaided by the gift of a philanthropist, consider it worthwhile to spend their own money on such things. Furthermore, they do a good job of it.
So it is not exactly something to be proud of when it is proved that Wilkes-Barre lacks even the ability to keep a zoo – after the money is provided.”
Thanks again to Larry Newman for sharing the above information and to the Hoyt Library for making the Zoo Plans available to the public (There are several pages not pictured here). The part that I STILL find puzzling is the fact that I cannot locate any pictures from the zoo when it was open. 2,000 to 3,000 people visited on Sundays during the summer and no one thought to take any pictures? I can only find the two posted above of the bears & the deer! If you have any relatives in their 70s, 80s 0r 90s, ask them if you can take a peek at any old family pictures they have lying around!
Even today, the Letterman Top 10 on January 20, 2012 listed the monkey as the #1 animal…..imagine how exotic it would have been to have monkeys in Kirby Park during the 1930s! Where are the pictures?! ….. THAT to me is the real mystery of the Kirby Park Zoo! 🙂
Cheri Sundra © 2012
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