The Pueblo Zoo has gone through a lot of evolution since the early 1900s
It moved forward from steel cages for animals to naturalistic exhibits focusing on animal welfare and conservation, all the while being a hub for animal enthusiasts and students across the region.
“Over the years, we have looked to continually improve the zoo, keeping it fresh for everybody who is visiting by adding exhibits and working within our means,” said Abbie Krause, executive director at the Pueblo Zoo.
“It’s very rare for a city this size to have an asset like the (Pueblo) Zoo. I am just amazed with it … It’s the foresight of people to build it up and I think if we ever lost it, it would be very hard to get it back.”
Krause said the zoo in the middle of City Park has been going strong through the good stewardship of citizens and the professional care of zoo keepers since the early 1900s.
“I think we are doing important work. Even though we are a small zoo, we are still contributing to conservation and the economy and I think it’s really a treasure,” Krause said.
In the early 1900s, animals were displayed in three local parks, including City Park, Mineral Palace Park and Mitchell Park.
According to a 2019 book called “The Pueblo Zoo Through the Years, an Inside Look” written by Jonnene McFarland and Martha Osborn, what is now the Pueblo Zoo was created in the wake of a visit to Pueblo in 1905 by Carl Hagenbeck of the Hagenbeck Shows.
Hagenbeck was a German animal merchant and is credited with the transformation of zoo architecture through the creation of more naturalistic habitats rather than barred cages.
He was looking to establish a zoo in the Rocky Mountain region. That bought him to town, according to the book.
The authors of the book said that the zoo was not established centrally based on Hagenbeck’s ideas. Instead, it was three separate collections of mostly local animals at the three parks.
The Pueblo Chieftain first reported on the animals at Mineral Palace Park in 1908. According to the book, Joe Fritzel, who began caring for the animals, called it a “zoo of sorts.”
There were not many animals.
“Zoos kind of started as menageries for rich people. Cities got into the business because they wanted to entertain citizens and attract people there,” Krause said.
“A lot of zoos were founded on a city ownership-type of structure, meaning people were not really trained for taking care of animals. That reflected in the animal care. We’ve really evolved over the years into really focusing on animal welfare.”
Krause said the Pueblo Zoo is more about conservation these days.
Krause said that in 1920, the three parks with animals consolidated at City Park.
According to McFarland’s and Osborn’s book, monkeys were added to the park that year and more animals were added in 1923.
A year later, there were bears.
“In the 1930s when the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) programs were in effect after the Great Depression, they constructed what we call the historical district now,” Krause said.
The historical district is the Animal House, the Tropical Bird House, Monkey Island, Monkey Mountain and the Bear Pit.
Work began on the popular Monkey Mountain in 1933. It became a play area for children for several years, but is now closed to the public.
Monkey Island with its famous concrete moat was completed in 1939 and featured a lighthouse complete with an operational lantern room and a miniature shipwreck named Ada Mae.
“All that was constructed with that classic WPA style. It is one of the best examples of WPA architecture,” Krause said.
Krause said the zoo started at City Park as a drive-through zoo.
“A lot of people in that neighborhood will tell you that they could hear the lions in that area. At that time, is was a free zoo and there were no fences,” Krause said.
“It was very hard to control the grounds back then and the safety of the animals.”
Krause said back then the zoo provided a lot of entertainment for people, but it could be depressing and dangerous for the animals.
Krause said in 1977, a group of citizens formed the Pueblo Zoological Society to focus on improving conditions for the animals.
From its inception in 1977 until 1990, the Zoological Society worked as a support group for the city-owned and operated zoo, providing educational programming and raising funds for improvements, including exhibits in the Discovery Room and Herpetarium.
In 1991, the Zoological Society assumed management of the zoo. Krause said since that time, the society’s accomplishments have been many.
“Full-time staff have expanded from four to 34; the animal collection has more than doubled to 500 animals representing 152 species ranging from insects to mammals; the operating budget has increased from $306,000 (1990) to $1.7 million (2016); and membership has expanded from 350 to 1,600 households,” Krause said.
She said visitation has steadily increased to about 100,000 each year, making the zoo one of the top attractions in the city. Over these same 25 years, nearly $8 million dollars in capital improvements have been made.
The grounds and buildings at the zoo remain owned by the City of Pueblo.
“It’s still a city asset, but the Zoological Society runs it,” Krause said.
Krause said caretakers started to evolve to professional zookeepers that are trained to take care of animals.
The zoo continues to focus on education, but conservation is a top priority.
“We focus heavily in what members can do for conservation. We have an extinction rate that has escalated exponentially, so we are actively involved in contributing in conservation projects across the globe as well as locally,” Krause said.
In 2010, the zoo launched a $2.5 million capital campaign to fund the construction of a Black Rhinoceros Exhibit and a Wildlife Learning Center.
Krause said more people visit zoos annually than all professional sports.
“That’s a real important voice that we have in advocating for animals with the public,” she said.
Krause said the zoo will continue to play an important part in educating children.
“We see more than 10,000 children a year. We go out to the school, too,” Krause said.
“I think most children who grew up in Pueblo have been a part of some sort of program at the zoo.”
Krause said the zoo brings tourists to town to help with the local economy and is used as a recruiting tool for businesses.
The zoo’s current budget is $1.9 million.
“When people and businesses are looking to relocate to a town, they are looking for the culture and the amenities that their families will be able to have,” Krause said.
“We play an important part in that.”