Connecting wildlife to you through Washington Park Zoo | The zoo is spread over 15 acres of fun, undergone changes

Written by Chronicle Staff. Posted in Community News & People in the News, Featured

Published on April 21, 2021 with No Comments

The Washington Park Zoo is a Northwest Indiana treasure. Located on the southern shore of Lake Michigan since 1928, the zoo is spread over 15 acres. Its natural hillside terrain, meandering tree-covered pathways and historical WPA (Works Progress Administration) structures enhance one’s visit through the wonders of the natural world.

The zoo started as a sanctuary and continues to welcome wildlife in need.  Many of the animals who call the zoo home have been pets that proved to be too wild or were confiscated as illegal and others have suffered injuries that would make life in the wild impossible.

The Washington Park Zoo features over 90 different species of animals native to Australia, Africa, Asia, North America and South America. With a real focus on education, the zoo has programs for all ages that inspire one’s knowledge of local, endangered and exotic species.

The zoo began in 1925 when a retired animal trainer moved his pet brown bear named “Jake” to the Washington Park lakefront. Jake did not have much public exposure after his trainer retired, so the man thought interested people might more often visit Jake in the park and provide company for him. The public response was immediate and a few other animals and birds were brought in from the fire department to add to the menagerie. Back then, the fire departments often took in misplaced exotic animals.

In 1927, City Manager Albert R. Couden, Max Gloye, and Wesley R. Kibby began planning for a special group to bring about the creation of a zoological garden. Behind the zoological garden lay the idea of park development, the study of zoology, and the furnishing of wholesome entertainment for the children and adults of Michigan City, as well as for the thousands of people who spent their summers at one of the numerous resorts along the lake front. In 1928, Couden appointed the first official Zoo Board, and the Zoo was moved off the lakefront to its present location in the sand dunes overlooking the lake.

The Zoo Board began by building new cages, pens, and walkways, solely with donated materials and volunteer labor. About this time, the Great Depression hit, so materials were scrounged, borrowed, and recycled from wherever possible.

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and New Deal policies began to blossom. Some zoos throughout the country were improved by WPA projects, but it is believed that the Washington Park Zoo is the only zoo in Indiana completely designed and landscaped by the WPA and its predecessor agencies, FERA and CWA (Civil Works Administration).

The first major project was the creation of “Monkey Island” in 1934.  This consisted of a center-moated island with a high exterior wall and access tunnel.  Several buildings followed, including two landmark structures. The observation tower sits on top of a sand dune east of the zoo and overlooks Lake Michigan.

The “Castle” structure that houses small mammals was built in 1937 and is a replica of the official insignia of the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army. The zoo has several winding walkways that were also built during the WPA days. Eleven buildings within the zoo are on the National Register of Historic Places

The zoo has undergone many changes since those early days. Today, the zoo has a vast array of animals in its collection, generally housing between 85 and 100 species, totaling around 250 animals. Several are Species Survival Plan (SSP) animals, members of designated endangered species groups and much more which are rescued misplaced exotic pets or non-releasable wildlife due to injuries they sustained in the wild.

Over the last few years, a sharper focus has been made to improve the landscape within the zoo and many of the flower beds were refurbished to create a pollination garden to attract native birds and insects, as well as to provide fresh enrichment items for the zoo animals.

Improvements during 2017 include the creation of the upper aviary building; improvements for a new arctic fox habitat; a local Lowes built a new raptor exhibit; and relocation of classrooms to the front of the zoo.

Zoo hours are as follows: April 1 to Memorial Day, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; Memorial Day to Labor Day, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; Labor Day to Oct. 31, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.; and Nov. 1 through March 31, closed for winter. The last entry of the day is one hour before closing.

Admission fees are: adults, 12-61 years, $8; seniors, 62 and older, $7; children, 3-11 years, $6; and free to children 2 and under. There is a discount for Michigan City residents, with identification.

For more zoo information, visit or call 219-873-1510.


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