If you want to see some exotic animals, but don't want to make the trek to Lincoln Park or Brookfield, you can head to the zoo of Northwest Indiana — the 15-acre Washington Park Zoo in Michigan City.
Located on sandy dunes near the lakefront, the zoo began in 1925 with a retired circus bear and in 1928 a zoo board was appointed. Today the site has exhibits featuring more than 90 species from around the world.
You probably didn’t know you could view Bengal tigers, American alligators, grizzly bears or ring-tailed lemurs without leaving the Region, but they’re among the residents living in natural settings at Washington Park Zoo. The zoo also includes a Discovery Center with snakes, frogs and lizards and an Australian Adventure walk-through aviary with more than 250 colorful free-flying parakeets. A farm area with a red barn has domestic horses, donkeys, goats and pigs.
All these creatures are set among winding walkways and can be looked down on from the 70-foot tall observation deck, which also provides a stunning view of Lake Michigan.
What makes this zoo even more extraordinary is that it’s more than a place for animal education. "The key thing that makes our zoo different is that it’s an up-close and personal experience and we have a lot of rescue animals,” said Jamie Huss, zoo director. “I love that we give these animals a second chance.”
Placards or signs on many of the exhibits tell the animals' origins. Many have been acquired after the zoo is contacted by the Department of Natural Resources as it tries to rehome them.
Two of the grizzly bears were brought to the zoo as youngsters. They had to be removed from the wild after their mother was euthanized because of being too close to a residential area in Montana.
Another resident of the zoo is a bobcat that was a rescue from Arizona. After being kept as a pet in Nevada, he was confiscated by the DNR after being illegally transported over state lines.
There are numerous birds — eagles, crows, vultures, hawks — that were brought to the zoo because of injuries and couldn’t be released back into the wild. The zoo worked with bird societies and other groups in taking in animals.
“We don’t focus just on breeding here,” Huss said. “We focus on being a rescue. We’re much more than just a zoo.”
Another unique feature of the zoo is that it is in Washington Park Zoo and operated by the Michigan City Park District.
The zoo park was a project of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. The first part to be constructed was Monkey Island in 1933, a center-moated island with several more structures and habitats to follow. In all, 11 buildings within the zoo are on the National Register of Historic Places. A lot of natural rock work is part of the landscape that came from that area. “There’s a lot of history here,” Huss said.
Among the later additions are the feline and elephant houses, a gift shop, the American Carnivore exhibit, a wolf exhibit and the Safari Train Ride.
Take a peek at the zoo’s website for special events. Some upcoming dates are Mother’s Day, when mothers and grandmothers get in free with a paid child admission; Military Members Day on May 29 with free admission for military members with ID, retired and active; and Customer Appreciation Day on Sept. 9 with half-price admission.