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Roots Revealed Blog

"Circle of Wildlife"

Posted: 6/11/2014
Posted By: Judith MacKeigan

The new Circle of Wildlife Carousel, awaiting the next group of riders.

Yesterday I paid a visit to the new Circle of Wildlife Carousel and the nearby Nature Discovery Ridge play area at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo this morning. This got me to thinking about the different types of children’s activities and rides that have delighted Cleveland area kids for many years.

The 1980s version of a zoo carousel.

I was once one of those kids and have wonderful memories of the zoo in the early 60s. There was, of course, the magical “zoo key” that allowed for interactive learning long before smart phones were invented. Monkey Island was always a favorite place for me and many others, including adults. I also remember the zoo train, a rather tame ride that still seemed like an adventure to a five year old. 

All dressed up and ready to ride the train, circa 1960.

 Feeding the sea lions was a mixed pleasure, as I was a squeamish little girl and found it a challenge to pick up the (to my mind) slimy fish. But the allure of the experience outweighed that squeamishness and I bravely stepped up to the platform to do my part. It was a little easier to feed a baby lamb with a bottle at the original children’s farm. The farm animals that lived at the old red barn were as exotic as the lions and elephants to kids who lived in the city and suburbs.

Feeding the sea lions in 1959  and a lamb at the old petting zoo, circa 1950.

Due to increased knowledge and respect for wildlife modern zoos no longer allow some of the up-close and personal activities that early zoos provided. For instance, we no longer offer elephant rides, as was common in the 1940s. Nor will you have a chance to hold a baby chimpanzee or other wild animal. We pay more attention to the safety of both the animals and the visitors. Modern exhibits, however, are designed to allow better viewing of the animals in more appropriate habitats than the old cage like structures that were built at the early zoo, some of which still existed in the zoo of my childhood. And there are still plenty of ways to interact safely, like helping to feed our lovely giraffes (seriously, how can anyone not love a giraffe?)

No caption needed, this face says it all.

Frieda, the elephant, was available for rides as well as "handshakes" in the 1940s.

The original children’s farm was opened in 1959. It stood in the area where the Australian Outback is today. There had been earlier petting zoos as well, but the farm represented the first time an area was built to recreate a real, if rather idealized, environment. It could be considered the forerunner of our modern exhibits that help the children (and adults!) to envision zoo animals in native habitats.  

The "old red barn" as it looked in 1980 and pony rides at the old petting zoo in the 1940s.

In doing the research for this article I was surprised to learn that several American zoological gardens (to give them their appropriate names) installed monkey island exhibits, going back to the 1900s. And, the zoo key that I was so fond of was found at zoos and other outdoor children’s venues all around the country in the late 1950s and beyond. I guess I thought my zoo key was unique! Here's a challenge: take a selfie with any old zoo keys that you have and send them to us. We'll create a collage for a future post.

I have to admit that many of the activities designed to entertain the children at the zoo have an appeal for the adults as well. Because while taking care of our earth and all of its amazing diverse wildlife is serious business, we can still have some fun while learning how to accomplish that goal. So I will be paying another visit to the Circle of Wildlife Carousel so that I can join the young and young at heart on the ride myself. I just have to decide on whether to ride the honey-bee or the polar bear, or maybe the iceberg with the penguins, or... come to think of it; I may ride a couple of times so I don’t have to choose just one!




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