Welcome to the jungle
Exciting plans are in store for the newly revitalized Tulsa Zoo.
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It didn’t take long for Pat Murphy to realize he would be sharing his workspace with some real characters at his new job. That day in 1981, he found himself surrounded by an extremely noisy and rather hairy crew, but it wasn’t the group’s monkey business that had Murphy staring in shock at his new workmates.
“That was my first exposure to chimpanzees up close,” Murphy says. “When you first see a chimpanzee up close, you’re very impressed with their size.”
For the past 32 years, Murphy has been king of the jungle – at least king of the ape, orangutan and chimpanzee jungle – as the current children’s zoo and primate zoological manager for the Tulsa Zoo and Living Museum. During these three decades, he has watched the zoo struggle and evolve to be the venue it is today. And while Murphy has been able to live his dream for the past several years, it was one city employee’s wild dream 85 years ago that started it all.
The roaring ‘20s
Through the vision of Tulsa Park Superintendent Will O. Doolittle, the city of Tulsa had its first zoo in 1928. Like many newborns, the zoo began small with only five staff members and 35 animals including two bears, a pair of monkeys, a water buffalo, and a number of deer, elk, bison and birds.
Each passing year, the zoo’s number of occupants grew, sometimes by the dozens. With an increasing number of mouths and beaks to feed, it fell upon the five zoo staff members to not only feed the animals, but also to grow, gather and cut the food to be eaten. Zoo employees would load up and sort out leftovers from local grocery stores.
Corn, oats, prairie hay and sweet potatoes were all grown and harvested on zoo property. For the meat-eaters, zookeepers would catch fish on zoo grounds during flood season. They would also collect and butcher road kills such as rabbits and livestock or buy cattle and horses.
Of course, the growth and early success of the zoo was not spared during the Great Depression. Zoo staff had to get even more creative to feed the more than 500 animals that filled the zoo in 1934. In addition to their growing, harvesting and gathering duties, the zoo staff added another task to feed the hungry animals.
“During the Depression and WWII, things were tough for the zoo,” Murphy says. “They had to hunt animals to feed the reptiles.”
Zoo employees would hunt squirrels, rats, sparrows, frogs and snakes. Aside from hunting, they also began gathering leftover bread scraps and hot dogs left behind in the picnic area of the park. Surprisingly, even as the soup lines grew throughout Tulsa, the zoo continued to grow with several buildings and exhibits constructed through federally funded Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps projects. Today, the admissions building built by the WPA still stands as the current day COX Nature Exchange building.
A grand entrance
After the war, the zoo began to grow once again, this time by the thousands of pounds. Gunda the Asian elephant, who will celebrate her 63rd birthday in November of this year, began her voyage to the Tulsa Zoo back in 1954 as a youngster. Her exhilarating elephant tale was nearly stomped out when the boat carrying the elephant to the U.S. broke down near Bermuda. Children — anxious to see an elephant for the first time — boarded the ship, and Gunda became a news sensation in Bermuda. During the time it took to repair the boat, the elephant was dubbed the “most popular tourist of the year” by local media.
Because the zoo did not have the funds to purchase the $3,000 elephant, the Junior Chamber of Commerce and Sipes Stores, a Tulsa grocery chain, underwrote the acquisition. During her first few months in Tulsa, Gunda made appearances on Saturday mornings outside different downtown stores. Onlookers were encouraged to donate toward a fund to keep Gunda, sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce.
During her long life at the zoo, Gunda was forced to say goodbye to a fellow elephant in 1966. On one occasion, Dorothy, a former circus elephant, broke a chain holding her front leg and grabbed a zookeeper with her trunk, injuring the keeper and worrying the zoo staff. Because of this and other past incidents (she had once killed a circus trainer), zoo administration decided to euthanize the animal by shooting her. Dorothy was buried in an unmarked grave outside of the zoo’s main complex.
Of course, the homes, care and expectations for these animals have evolved over the past 85 years. Murphy says some practices that occurred as recently as the 1970s would be considered unacceptable today.
“With animals like chimpanzees, they were frequently hand-reared by people and dressed up in clothes,” he says. “They’d ride around on bicycles, but the zoos have really transitioned away from that and tried to present the animals as accurately as possible.”
By the 1960s, the zoo began moving away from the prison-like bars and cages that had contained animals for decades. Instead, many of these exhibits were replaced with the current day “grottos” in which an animal is separated from the public by a steep, large moat.
The next decade brought about more changes at the zoo with education at the center. Zoo Director David Zucconi established the concept of a “living museum” where animals are grouped alongside other animals from the same geographic area and partnered with plants that might be found in their natural habitat.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the zoo’s ostrich population jumped on board to do a little creative fundraising for the zoo.
“When a family or organization made a donation to the zoo, in exchange they would become a member of the Order of the Ostrich,” Murphy says. “They would receive an ostrich egg, and be invited to an ostrich egg omelet and champagne breakfast. I heard Bob Hope … was made an honorary member of the Order of the Ostrich.”