13 Curious Facts About the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

The nation’s second oldest zoo has hosted dogs, birds, Native Americans, cantankerous elephants, escape-minded cats, and opera singers over its distinguished history.
A bird’s-eye view of the Cincinnati Zoo as it appeared around 1907.

“Historical Collections of Ohio Volume 1” by Henry Howe; image digitized by Ohio History Connection

Blame the Caterpillars

In 1872, caterpillars infested Cincinnati trees to such an extent that Andrew Erkenbrecher, a wealthy local miller, formed the Society for the Acclimatization of Birds to import caterpillar-feasting species. Flushed with success after acquiring more than 1,000 birds, the group developed plans for the Zoological Society of Cincinnati to house the imported birds that couldn’t survive in the wild here. Erkenbrecher is largely responsible for Cincinnati’s starlings and English sparrows.

For-Profit in Theory

The Cincinnati Zoo was originally organized as a for-profit enterprise, but it never turned much of a profit. The lingering effects of the financial Panic of 1873, compounded by a smallpox epidemic and poor weather, resulted in deficits throughout the first decade. In 1885, Zoo directors considered a total shutdown, including selling off all the animals. Eventually, the Zoo reorganized as a nonprofit corporation, with the City of Cincinnati owning the land.

Walking Into a Job

Sol Stephan arrived at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1875 to deliver a bull African elephant named Conqueror. Although opening day was rapidly approaching, the Zoo was still under construction and no one knew how to take care of an elephant. Stephan was asked to stick around for a couple of days. He stayed for 62 years, rising to become the legendary superintendent and general manager.

In 1896, the Cincinnati Zoo exhibited 89 Sicangu Sioux, who set up a village on the Zoo grounds.

Image digitized by the Cincinnati History Library and Archives

Humans on Display

In addition to animals, the Zoo secured 89 Sioux through a contract with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Native Americans, on display for three months in 1896, set up a village within the Zoo and lived their normal life, according to advertisements, giving “a rare opportunity of showing the character and mode of life of the Indian tribes.” The foray into human exhibits was a financial failure, but Zoo officials hailed it from an educational perspective as “an incalculable success.”

Going to the Dogs

In its early days, the Zoo displayed a variety of dogs. On opening day, visitors saw a Newfoundland, two mastiffs, poodles, “Danish hounds” (Great Danes), and greyhounds. Some were trained performers, but others merely illustrated uncommon breeds. Interested observers could purchase dogs from the Zoo. St. Bernard dogs were advertised as “docile…but a terror to tramps and evil-doers.”

Old Hornbill

When a Cincinnati newspaper visited the Zoo in 1909, only one of the animals on display when the Zoo first opened in 1875 was still alive: an African Hornbill. The old bird survived more than 33 years in captivity and outlived every other specimen that originally populated the Zoo’s cages.

Pat McAvoy, Lion Slayer

During its first year of operation, two large carnivores escaped the Zoo. Both were shot and killed by Pat McAvoy, a building contractor who served as Clifton Town Marshal. In March 1875, while the Zoo was still under construction, a lioness escaped, killed a donkey, and attacked a night watchman before McAvoy shot it. In September of that year, a leopard got loose and prowled Burnet Woods for several days before McAvoy tracked and killed it. The Cincinnati Daily Times [September 30, 1875] quipped: “It is said that the Zoological Society consists of two persons, Andrew Erkenbrecker and McAvoy. The former furnishes the game for the latter to shoot.”

Firing Squad for an Elephant

In December 1890, the Cincinnati Zoo brought in a firing squad to execute a cantankerous elephant named Old Chief. Retired from the Robinson Circus, where he had killed his keeper, Chief’s tantrums threatened nearby animals—not to mention Zoo personnel—and Zoo directors signed his death warrant. A single marksman proved unable to bring down the elephant, so the Zoo recruited a squad of four, who fired multiple volleys until the great beast finally succumbed. The Palace Hotel served elephant steaks that night. Chief’s skeleton and skin were displayed at the Zoo for years and then donated to the University of Cincinnati.

Bloody Butchers’ Day

From The Cincinnati Post June 13, 1897; image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

During the 1890s, as part of the annual Butchers’ Day at the Zoo, local meat cutters competed to determine who could kill, skin, and dress a bull of no less than 1,400 pounds. Although the animals were killed on stage, a curtain was closed at the fatal moment, but drawn back to provide a clear view of beheading, skinning, and dressing the fresh beef. The animal contestants were served at a grand barbecue later in the day.

Dinnertime Delight

In years past, a top attraction at the Cincinnati Zoo was watching living lunch fed to ravenous beasts. While the big carnivores usually got great joints of butchered beef or pork, the snakes and reptiles were served live rabbits, rats, or squirrels. Spectators enjoyed watching the hungry snake attack and kill its meal. So popular was feeding time that the Zoo published the schedule in their advertisements.

In the Ring

Throughout the 1940s, the Zoo entertained visitors by pitting trainer Howland Kirby against Rodney the kangaroo. Although the Zoo claimed the boxing matches “relaxed” Rodney and that Rodney eagerly anticipated these bouts with his trainer, public outcry eventually ended the pugilistic routine.

Sopranos Pull Rank

For half a century, the Zoo was home to Cincinnati’s Summer Opera. At times, the on-stage artists harmonized with screeching peacocks and trumpeting elephants. The accommodations were nothing like The Met; performers had to dress and make up in a small village of tents near the stage, except for the star soprano. She was assigned the only dressing room in the building.

April Fools Abound

For years, the telephone at the Cincinnati Zoo rang off the hook on the first day of April. A standard April Fools prank involved leaving a phone message asking the victim to return a call to Mr. Baehr, Mr. Lyon, Mr. Wolf, or Mr. Fox. While the perpetrator enjoyed boffo yucks, the Zoo’s receptionist dreaded the annual ordeal. In recent years, with almost-universal caller identification, the gag has lost its luster.

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