Episode Three: The Memphis Zoo

“These animals are like my children, every day that I come to the zoo I say, ‘Daddy’s home’.” – Nicholas J. Melroy, 1923

You can thank the payment of debt, which came in an unusual form, for the construction of Memphis’s wonderful zoo.
Albert Carruthers, president of a local shoe business, accepted an in-kind payment for a shipment of shoes, in the form of a black bear cub named “Natch.” Mr. Carruthers gave the cub to the Memphis Turtles baseball team to use as a mascot. As the bear got older, he became less tolerant of the noisy sports fans and began snapping at children. The team retired their live mascot and returned him to Mr. Carruthers. Unable to house the bear as he got older (and BIGGER), Albert decided to chain Natch to a tree in the middle of Overton Park. Eventually, a log cabin was built for the bear and he became a popular attraction in the park.

Natch in Overton Park

Citizens visiting the park started “donating” wild animals to the park, beginning with a wildcat and a monkey. Eventually a fence was built around Natch. Animals, wild or not, still need food, so Natch and the other animals were being fed by a generous man, Col. Robert Galloway, one of the founding members of the park commission.

The Memphis Parks Commission was formed in 1901 and headed by John Goodwin, LB McFarland, and Robert Galloway. In 1906, Galloway petitioned the parks commission for funds to help open a zoo in Overton Park (named after Memphis Founder, John Overton). After lots of effort, on April 4, 1906, the parks commission established an annual fund of $1200 to create a zoo. 

The first true zoo, like the ones we know today, was the Philadelphia Zoo.  The charter was approved in March of 1859, but unfortunately, the Civil War broke out and it was not opened until July 1, 1874. This zoo was the first in the country to breed animals that were considered difficult to breed in captivity. 

In August of 1906, the Memphis Zoo Association (later known as the Memphis Zoological Society) held a fundraiser that raised $3600. That money, combined with the parks commission’s donation, allowed the zoo to be able to buy 23 cages and a row of concrete bear dens. 

In 1907, Galloway Hall was the first building constructed and it held most of the zoo’s animals. Galloway Hall held many animal habitats, including the reptiles until it was demolished in 1954. Besides Natch the bear and his park mates, some of the first animals the zoo held were native animals, such as foxes and snapping turtles, most of which were caught by citizens and given to the zoo. 

In the early days, animals would be shipped to the US directly from their country of origin. As time passed, animals were acquired from other zoos or zoos would purchase retired circus animals. 

Some of the first animals to arrive at the zoo, starting in 1908, were three black bears, a cinnamon bear by the name of Teddy, after President Roosevelt, six madagascar monkeys, four spider monkeys, and one java macaque monkey. 

Bear Pits

In 1909, polar bears Ella and her mate moved to the zoo. That was also the year the elephant house was built. The first African elephant named Marguerite was acquired from Ringling Brothers circus in 1912. The following year, the first bengal Tiger, Samantha, was also purchased from Ringling Bros. Both animals were named by school children from a contest run in the local paper. 

Elephant House
Original Big Cat House

In 1914, Henry Loeb (a name that most Memphians will recognize today) held a fundraiser that helped obtain Venus and Adonis, the zoo’s first hippos. Their permanent home was not completed until 1916 but it housed all the future hippos for 100 years, until the new habitat was built in 2016.

Hippos House

Venus and Adonis sired 8 babies in the first 20 years they were at the zoo. Little fact I learned, Hippos are pregnant for about 8 months, but after they give birth, they will not conceive again for at least 18- 24 months. 

The next large structure built was the greenhouse, and it was used for botanical displays. Not only did it provide for the zoo, it also provided flowers and shrubbery for the city’s parks, hospitals, and schools. In the 20s, tropical birds were added and more than 60 species of birds are able to live in a naturalistic habitat.

Bird House

More construction of new habitats continued into the 1920s. A new monkey house was built for the smaller apes and monkeys. In 1923, the zoo acquired a round barn from the Memphis Police Department. It had served as a stable for the mounted patrol. This barn and area around it housed the hoofed animals, camels, zebras, and elk. In the 1950s, walls and a facade was added and it looks much the same way today, as it did back then. 

Up until the early 1920’s, the zoo had four previous superintendents, but probably none more dedicated than number five, Nicholas J. Melroy. Hired in 1923, Melroy joined the zoo after he had traveled with Ringling Bros Circus for many years. Using his contacts in the animal world, he was able to bring numerous animals to our zoo. He put the animals above all else. During the depression, he would visit restaurants for meat scraps for the big cats. During WWII, he grew a victory garden to feed the animals. He would take injured and orphaned animals into his home and care for them until they could go to the zoo. He respected the animals and they trusted him. 

Melory Postcard
Melroy in the paper

In 1926, Melroy started a one ring circus. It was the only free circus in the world. Tommy O’Brien would take animals from the zoo, as well as random dogs that may have wandered into the zoo, and trained them daily for the shows. 

With help from the Works Progress Administration, the zoo was able to expand. 1936 was a big year for the zoo. Monkey Island was built (where today’s Primate Canyon is) for rhesus monkeys. They were housed there for 60 years! These were very playful and mischievous monkeys too. Apparently, it was not uncommon for nearby businesses to call the zoo about escaped monkeys.

Monkey Island

Also in 1936, a new entrance for the zoo was designed. Ramelle Van Vleet, the first lifetime member of the zoological society, donated a pair of Italian marble lions to flank the entrance. They stood outside the entrance for over a century, until the renovation of 1990. You can now find them at the entrance of Stingray Cove. By this year (1936), the zoos population had reached 1,000 animals and the next year, the staff had grown to 11 people!

Lions flanking the enterance

Larger birds were the next on the list to get an upgrade. A steel and concrete aviary was built for bald eagles, black vultures, and a giant condor. There was also a smaller area built with cages for pheasants and Japanese silkie chickens. Peacocks, at the time, freely roamed around the zoo, generally being chased by all the children. 

The bears finally got barless pits in 1938. It gave them a place to roam and a cave to sleep in for privacy. The bears eventually learned to do tricks, like stand and wave, in order to get food thrown at them by visitors. These bear pits were demolished in 2014.

Kiddie Land appeared in 1943, it was part amusement park and part petting zoo. This gave the farm animals the extra attention they needed, and the children got to see an animal up close.

There is also rumor that during the 40s, the original MGM lion Leo, from the logo, was retired to the zoo to live out his final years. 

“Leo” the lion

Another famous animal would also be housed at the zoo. According to legend, Modoc, a one eyed elephant, was abandoned by the circus and left at the fairgrounds. O’Brien walked him the 2 miles back to the zoo and he lived there for 10 years before pursuing an acting career in Hollywood…  You heard that right… Modoc appeared in several movies and even a peanut butter commercial.

The 1950s saw another set of firsts for the zoo. The new superintendent after Melroy, Raymond Gary, started a big renovation in 1953.
The first female zookeeper, Alberta Lowrance was hired in 1955.
In 1957, Elvis donated a baby wallaby to the zoo. While he was filming a movie in Australia, some fans had given him a wallaby as a present. Knowing that he couldn’t care for the animal when he returned home, he gave it to the zoo.
In the mid 50s, the African Veldt was built to house the elephants and rhinos and was completely opened in the late 60s. And finally, in 1959, the zoo’s aquarium was completed. It housed local fish as well as marine life from around the world. This is currently the oldest building still in use at the zoo today. 

1960 was also a big year for the zoo because it was finally desegregated! Prior to this time, African Americans could only visit the zoo one day a week, originally on Thursday, but it was eventually changed to Tuesday. 

Sign prior to desegregation

Expansions from the zoo’s renovation were temporarily put on hold in the early 1960s. The city tried to route interstate 40 through the park, and although there were plans drawn up as to how to expand the zoo with the interstate through it, luckily the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park won the fight to keep the interstate clear of the zoo.

I40 Park plans

By late 60s, the Primate house was completed. This included enclosures for 22 different primates and a kitchen to prepare the food. A glass window was installed so that visitors could see how the foods were prepared. 

1968 was the first year the zoo started charging admission. Until the point, the zoo had been a free attraction for Memphis Citizens. The new admission cost was $.55 for adults, but children were still free. This price would increase a few years later to $.75 for adults and $.25 for children.

The 1970s saw a shift from a zoo that provided entertainment, to one that also provided education. In 1971, the Mobile Zoo was created. It spread the message of the zoo to schools, organizations, and communities that might not know all the stuff the zoo had to offer. The staff would discuss the importance of protecting wildlife as well as offer close up experiences with some of the animals. The following year ZAP, the zoo action patrol, was created to provide information to visitors and to help protect animals from mistreatment. Zoo employees were very passionate about their animals. For instance, there is one story of an employee, Debbie Blackwell, who saw a baby giraffe stuck in a fence. Without hesitation, she immediately jumped in the enclosure to help it get free. The momma giraffe, not knowing what this human was doing to her baby, kicked Blackwell, injuring her and knocking her unconscious. She never recovered. Blackwell was in a coma for 20 years before passing in 1996.

A local celebrity, Tom the tiger, the Memphis State Tigers mascot was also housed at the zoo and would accompany the team to all their games. The name “TOM” was an acronym that stood for “Tigers of Memphis”. 

In 1975, the first Safari Express made its maiden voyage around the zoo. It was a train that could carry 20 passengers on a half mile tour around the zoo. Now, visitors can see the entire zoo by tram if they could not walk it. 

In 1976, Charles Wilson became the new director of the zoo. He had four philosophies for the zoo and how it should be run. The zoo was to provide conservation, research, education, and recreation. The zoo’s name was also officially changed to Memphis Zoo and Aquarium. In 1979, the old Pachyderm building was converted into an education center and library. It centers around zoo history and has up to date information on trends in animal care and scientific study. The zoo participates in “The Species Survival Plan” which helps focus on those animals in danger of extinction in the wild. The program helps to maintain healthy and genetically diverse animal populations within the zoo community. 

The 1980s saw some minor renovations in the early part of the decade, the aquarium got a renovation, gates were added to the entrance, and a master plan was being created. 

The first panda was brought to the zoo in 1987. For five weeks, Xiu Hua was on loan from China and 240,000 people came to see her. 

Major renovations started to take place in 1989 and continued for the next 20 years . By 1990, the front entrance had been redesigned with an Egyptian theme. By 1993, Cat Country opened and the big cats were able to feel grass under their feet for the first time ever. The zoo houses seven species of cats that are endangered. Their former home was renovated and turned in to the Cat House Cafe the following year. 

New/ Current enterance

1995 was another big year for new exhibits at the zoo. Primate Canyon (more open and natural enclosures for the monkeys) , Once Upon a Farm (the new petting zoo and educational center), and Animals of the Night (formally the primate house, converted to habitats for nocturnal animals and Tara’s favorite exhibit) were completed. In 1998, the Dragon’s Lair was completed for the Komodo dragons and a new animal hospital was also created in each area for the sick or injured animals, keeping each apart so they can heal and recover. 

The new century brought more new, exciting, and realistic habitats. In 2002, CHINA opened with a focus on 15 species native to China, with an emphasis on conservation and research. The following year, Chuck Brady was named the new president of the zoo, and a pair of giant pandas, Ya Ya and Le Le, arrived from China. They are still in our zoo today. 

While construction on the Northwest Passage started in 2004, it was not completed for another two years. The area houses animals from the Pacific Northwest and also shows a history of Native Americans from the northwestern part of the US. You can find polar bears, black bears, bald eagles, a raven, and the magical sea lion show in the Northwest Passage. 

A few years later, in 2009, Teton Trek opened as a lodge and natural area dedicated to Yellowstone’s history. It houses grizzly bears, elk, and gray wolves. 

The most recent edition to the zoo was in 2016, the Zambezi River Hippo Camp. It houses hippos, Nile crocodiles, okapi, mandrills, and flamingos. 

Current map of zoo

The zoo currently houses 4500 animals in over 500 species and it is also an arboretum, with over 50 species of mature trees. 

Since its early days, there have always been events held at the zoo to help with fundraising. Some of the early events were Frog Jumping contests and a Memorial Day tortoise race. 

But these days there are yearly events like Zoo Brew, Zoo Rendezvous, Zoo Boo, Zoo Lights, as well as numerous daily events for visitors, homeschoolers, and also summer camps for all ages of children. And you can even adopt animals!

According to the zoo’s websites, today the zoo has two main goals, education and conservation. Their education department focuses on spreading awareness and knowledge on endangered species and efforts across the globe to preserve them. They offer hands-on and interactive school classes and adult education classes. The classes provide an up close look at wildlife and conservation while enriching core academic standards. Some of the classes offered are OWL (observe, wonder, learn), Zoo labs, Wander Into Wildlife, Zoo Snooze, and teacher workshops. 

The zoo has research projects by scientists that have contributed new knowledge and techniques to the field of conservation biology. All research, regardless of how esoteric it might appear, is conducted with an eye towards gaining an important insight or tool which they then put to work to protect animals. 

The zoo’s vision for conservation is to become an effect and internationally recognized leader in the field of conservation biology. Their common values:

  • Biodiversity of all flora and fauna- they all have value and as a zoological and botanical garden, we have a responsibility to support their preservation. 
  • The destruction, degradation, or loss of functional ecosystems and the species that occupy them is unacceptable.
  • Conservation education performs a critical role in explaining to our audience how the natural world operates and how human activities can both positively and negatively affect species and their habitats. 
  • Research and science should inform management and policy regarding conservation of ecosystems or species. 
  • Maintaining the genetic diversity and sustainability of our animal collection for potential future reintroductions is necessary as a hedge against extinction. 
  • The composition and management programs for our living collection must be planned wisely to maximize our impact on global biodiversity preservation. 

The zoo has also implemented initiatives that apply the tools and knowledge gained from scientific research to solve real life problems threatening the world’s wildlife. They try to improve the security and stability of animal populations both in captivity and the wild. The zoo also has a Go Green initiative that helps to make the zoo more sustainable and spread awareness about how to be environmentally friendly. 

Our zoo was transformed from a place to house unwanted wild animals to a zoological conservatory for various species of animals.  

So that’s the story of the Memphis Zoo!

We hope you enjoyed listening to the story we unearthed.


Book Images of America Memphis Zoo Robert Dye
Arcadia Publishing (June 15, 2015)

Memphis Zoo History

Memphis Zoo Conservation

Philadelphia Zoo

Philadelphia Zoo History

Hippo Mating Gestation

Germantown News, September 3, 1897

Elmwood Cemetery – Memphis Zoo https://www.facebook.com/121870366256/posts/10158132903206257/

**Photos on this site are for informational purposes only and constitutes Fair Use under Section 107 of the US Copyright Law. We do not own the rights to these photos. **

3 thoughts on “Episode Three: The Memphis Zoo

  1. Quick comment. Elvis never filmed in Australia. The wallaby’s (there were 2) were given to him by fans. First one was on set of jailhouse rock. He did donate both to the Memphis Zoo. He also donated his peacocks to the zoo after they damaged one of his cars. 😬

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