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MICHIGAN CITY — Just seven years ago, officials were considering closing the Washington Park Zoo.

Founded in 1928, the zoo on the city's lakefront had seen better days. 

The buildings, many built during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration, were showing wear.

Zoos themselves were changing. The single cages that contained animals were no longer attracting people, nor were they the optimum way to maintain wildlife.

Instead, zoo director Jamie Huss said, the facility, which is owned by the city and operated through the parks department, got an influx of funds from Blue Chip Casino. That led to the development of a five-year strategic plan, now in its third year. Slowly but surely, the zoo is being renovated.

It also is going back to its original mission of rescuing animals and providing educational programming for not only zoo visitors, Huss said, but for schoolchildren and other organizations.

The change is working, she said. In 2017, the zoo set a new record for attendance of more than 100,000 people visiting during its seven-month season, up 2.6 percent from the previous year, which also had been a record year. 

Zoo's beginnings

The zoo traces its beginning to 1925, when a retired animal trainer moved his pet brown bear, Jake, to the Washington Park lakefront. The trainer had hoped people would visit Jake, and they did.

Jake was joined by other animals and birds, often brought in by local fire departments, which took in misplaced exotic animals, according to the zoo's official history.

By 1927, the city brought together a group to plan for the creation of a zoological garden. The following year, a zoo board was appointed, and the zoo was moved from the lakefront to its present location on 15 acres overlooking the lake.

Construction began at the zoo, but the Great Depression hit and construction slowed. Construction materials were "scrounged, borrowed and recycled from wherever possible."

"There are even stories about a resourceful zoo board salvaging some structure steel from a nearby bridge project and hiding it under manure piles so the city wouldn't find it," according to the history.

Eventually, the zoo fell under the umbrella of the WPA and its predecessor agencies. Civil workers designed and built Monkey Island, observation tower and Rotary Castle, first known as the Engineers Castle because it is a replica of the official insignia of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Several of the walkways and stairways still in use today were constructed during the WPA days. Eleven buildings within the zoo are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Attraction

Sean Mulcahy, 3, ran through the zoo's barnyard area on a recent April morning. His mom, Rose, pushed brother Eddie, 1, in a stroller.

The Michigan City family visits the zoo often, Rose Mulcahy said, and purchase season passes.

"It is great for this age. We can do the whole thing in 45 minutes to an hour. Then we get lunch and eat with the monkeys," she said.

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Al and Lorie Matulewicz, of Whiting, also were visiting the zoo that day. On vacation, they were taking in several spots within the city and decided to stop at the zoo.

"We used to bring the kids here a bit," Al Matulewicz said. "It is easy parking and real compact."

"It is a huge benefit for tourism in Michigan City and LaPorte County," said LaPorte County Tourism Executive Director Jack Arnett, adding the zoo and the rest of Washington Park are a marketing tool for the city and county.

"It's huge. The whole Washington Park facility is a cornerstone of the community," Arnett said.

Improvements

Huss, who grew up at the zoo, where her mother worked several years as a zookeeper, said the zoo is in the third year of a strategic plan to improve the park. Much of that, she said, involves expanding and revamping exhibits and improving the habitats in which the animals live.

Lions came back to the zoo two years ago. Their habitat has been expanded, and this year they will be adding a rock tunnel for the two to play, Huss said.

Many of the exhibits are being revamped, she said, as funding and volunteer labor is available. They also recently constructed a new deck and picnic facility in the former elephant yard. 

A big project this year will be the renovation of the Rotary Children's Castle. The City Council and Redevelopment Commission are chipping in $600,000 for an interior and exterior renovation of the building. Construction is due to start in May.

Monkey Island, now home to lemurs and ducks, also is earmarked for major reconstruction. Huss said testing will be done this year to determine if it is structurally sound to undergo renovations. 

Hess said the zoo operates on an annual budget of about $700,000. Full-time staff includes Hess, five zookeepers and an office manager. Seasonal and city maintenance staff help out.

The zoo depends on volunteers and donations for many of the improvements.

Zoo's mission

Huss said while the zoo is being revamped, revitalized and updated, the mission is a throwback to when Jake inspired its development. The emphasis at the zoo has been to improve the lives of the animals. That means expanding exhibits, making them more home-like. It also includes providing toys and ways to enrich the animals' lives.

Many of the animals are rescues. Huss said the zoo is not a breeding zoo, but has an emphasis on rescue and education. They have more than 100 parakeets taken from a hoarder's home. The two bald eagles on exhibit couldn't live in the wild, she said, as one was injured when he was shot and the other has bad vision. One of the zoo's bobcats was rescued from Arizona. The two grizzly bears are sisters and were taken in when their mother was euthanized 13 years ago.

The two spider monkeys were surplus and the arctic foxes were headed to a fox farm, where they would have likely become coats, before being diverted to Michigan City. The iguana was found running loose in Indianapolis, and seven of the big birds on display had been someone's pets before finding a home at the zoo.

A veterinarian clinic was added in 2017 to help care for the animals.

The zoo's second major mission is education. Programs are available, Huss said, and they take a traveling band of animals to schools, nursing homes and other groups throughout the area for educational purposes.

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.