There’s a lot of animal magnetism these days at Washington Park Zoo. With new and refurbished exhibits, visitors can find themselves inches away from a monkey, feeding a bird on their shoulders, and having an “Otter Body Experience.”
It’s hard to believe the place came close to closing in 2004. Seventy-six years old, the zoo was in dire need of repairs and upgrading—and the funds to pay for them. Enter zoo director Johnny P. Martinez, an energetic man who made it his mission to save the zoo.
“When I came here, we were discussing closing the zoo,” he recalls, but his experience and business acumen were enough to rescue the zoo from extinction. Martinez began with 16 years at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and has worked at six zoos since then, the last four as director. He also attended zoo management school, has designed exhibits, and has taken care of everything from orangutans to elephants
Martinez is passionate about the work and respects the zoo’s history. “The zoo is 86 years old, completed in 1932, and the structures like the castle and the tower are still in use today.”
When an animal trainer retired and realized his brown bear was likely lonesome, he brought the bear to Washington Park for folks to entertain and to be entertained. That was in 1925, and the bruin was such a big hit that more animals and some birds were added. Just a couple of years later city officials hunkered down to plan an entire park complex, including a zoo located on sand dunes on the west side of the road through the park.
The bridge caper
All went well, with donated materials and volunteer labor—until the Great Depression. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) stepped in to build the new zoo, but even then, getting certain items required a little creativity. Word has it that zoo board members spirited structure steel from under an ongoing Michigan City bridge project—and then hid it under manure so their escapade wouldn’t be discovered.
The first big project was the popular Monkey Island. “It was built in 1933, so it’s showing its age and was closed in 2012,” says Martinez. “Zoo workers had to go through a 50-foot tunnel to access the island and move the monkeys to the primate building for the winter. All that moving back and forth was arduous for the workers and stressful for the monkeys. It’s just unethical to do,” and you can hear in his voice the determination to do right by the animals. The collapsing tunnel will be removed and a redesigned structure built.
The zoo wasn’t built with winter accommodations, so the animals had to be shipped to other zoos or housed elsewhere. “Now all the animals stay at the zoo year-round.”
The zoo’s Castle, built in 1937 and housing the small mammals, replicates the official insignia of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The observation tower on a dune overlooking Lake Michigan has its own history, too, its topper reportedly a compression chamber from the first fire engine to hit the streets of the city. Eleven structures are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today the zoo is roaring, screeching, and chirping with life, but not before it faced possible ruin. Then Martinez took the reins.
“One thing that was very fortunate was the (Blue Chip Casino) contributing money to Michigan City, with $100,000 dedicated to the zoo for capital improvements.” Then-Mayor Chuck Oberlie had set aside $300,000 of the funds that hadn’t yet been spent for the zoo, so when Martinez arrived in 2004, he saw to making physical improvements, with care of the animals foremost. Electrical generators for HVAC and alarms were installed in the buildings as backup in case of a power outage. Insulation was added to buildings; the red barn has more lights and instead of buckets of water there are self-waterers.
Gone are the harsh bars separating you from a primate; now it’s three-quarter-inch-thick laminated glass: “It’s up close and personal.”
Martinez’ business sense proved to be invaluable. “I told them when I came here, ‘This Is a business and needs to operate like one: self-generating and self-perpetuating.’ We built a new gift shop, then an additional room to display novelties and souvenirs. We added a storage barn so we can order in bulk and get a better price. The concession was leased out and the zoo received only 10 percent of the revenue; the second year I was here we took it over and started getting 100 percent.”
Martinez speaks quickly and with conviction, as determined as any lion hunting its dinner, but with a lively interest in people and what interests them. “We made sure to have 25-cent things so a grandmother can get things for kids, but also high-dollar items. And now we have more fun interactive things, like feeding goats for a quarter—that generates $5,000 a year. All revenue generated at zoo goes toward keeping the zoo.”
But more upgrades are needed, and the zoo is on dunes that move constantly, so maintenance is ongoing. Then, too, “Our biggest cost is employee wages and animal food.”
Because of a hiring freeze that continues, the entire zoo is staffed by eight full-time people. “All of us wear different hats,” groundskeeper, arranging for an animal arrival, business meetings, and more. There are educational presentations in the community. “We have a dedicated staff, 24/7 and holidays. Animals aren’t something you can unplug and walk away from.”
Fund-raising and donations help support the zoo and its wild assortment of species (between 85 and 100 species, several of them endangered, totalling about 250 animals). Here are just a few:
- The Washington Zoo Society is a 501(c), so donations can be a used as a tax write-off.
- The society holds “Fun-Raiser” events.
- The zoo’s Share the Care program: Adopt an animal and its care. Funds go to upgrading the facilities for animals and for their toys, which are not in the budget.
- Zoofari, a banquet of beer, brats, and burgers
Membership fees help, too, priced accordingly: Family of four, grandparents, singles.
There’s also a wish list for the zoo on its web site at washingtonparkzoo.com
Volunteers are always welcome, there’s a docent program, and there are internships for college kids.
And always, there are the animals. Two white tiger cubs were born in May. For a dollar you can buy a Popsicle stick with bird feed glued to it, then enter the new aviary so a bird can land on your shoulder for a snack while cockatiels and kookaburras chat it up nearby. Griizzly bears hoist up their massive selves to scan the area. Kids can crawl into an underwater acrylic tube and see otters swim all around them.
“We’re the icing on the Michigan City cake,” says Martinez. “We bring more than 78,000 people to the city; they buy gas, go to McDonald’s, the mall, the beach, then come here for a clean, wholesome family event.”