The Indianapolis Zoo is located in White River State Park downtown, and since opening in 1964, it has grown into a world-class facility hosting a million visitors each year and playing a major role in worldwide conservation and research, including accomplishing the world’s first successful artificial insemination of an African elephant.
The Indianapolis Zoo was the first attraction triple accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the American Association of Museums as a zoo, an aquarium and a botanic garden. Look for the AZA logo whenever you visit a zoo or aquarium as your assurance that you are supporting a facility dedicated to providing excellent care for animals, a great experience for you, and a better future for all living things.
White River Gardens is part of the Zoo and continues its tradition of connecting animals, plants, and people. This stunningly beautiful 3.3-acre landmark botanical attraction combines the best of gardening ideas, plant information and inspirational design to serve the needs of all visitors. With hundreds of plant varieties on display plus entertaining special exhibits throughout the year, White River Gardens is an international showplace for Indiana where visitors can enjoy and learn about the bounty of the natural world. Visitors to the Gardens will be inspired, impressed, enlivened, and entertained.
The Indianapolis Zoo empowers people and communities, both locally and globally, to advance animal conservation.
In the Beginning
The media have always served as a catalyst for action. That was the case in the early 1940s when newspaper columnist Lowell B. Nussbaum began voicing his dream of establishing a zoo in Indianapolis. Through his column "Inside Indianapolis," which first appeared in the Indianapolis Times and then the Indianapolis Star, Nussbaum campaigned for a zoo. The columns spurred community leaders into action, and on October 24, 1944, Articles of Incorporation for the Indianapolis Zoological Society, Inc., were filed with the Indiana Secretary of State. Over the next few months, the founder members elected directors, outlined goals, approved bylaws, and discussed possible sites for the facility. One goal, which still holds today, is that the Zoo depends upon admissions, in-park sales, contributions and memberships to support it.
As the effects of World War II were felt, momentum for the Zoo slowed, but the Society continued to meet. The collection of animals and planning of exhibits went on, a site was determined, and fundraising goals were met. As happens with many plans, however, the Society met with some resistance. Neighbors of George Washington Park, the future site of the Zoo, did not want a zoo in their backyards. They sued the city and the Zoo, hoping to have the site lease voided. The court upheld the lease and dismissed the case, and on August 6, 1962, construction began.
Two decades after the Indianapolis Zoological Society was founded, with the diligence, hard work, and the benevolence of many, the Indianapolis Zoo opened on April 18, 1964 at the original East 30th Street location. Today, because of the persistence of a newspaper columnist and dedication of other community leaders, the Indianapolis Zoo is one of the state's most popular tourist attractions.
The First Zoo
The Zoo was first considered a children's zoo with an Asian elephant, penguins, kangaroos, foxes, raccoons, camels, bison, deer, lambs, tortoises, llamas, prairie dogs, pygmy goats, and buffalo exhibits. The Zoo could be identified by the Dutch windmill at the entrance, replicas of a 19-foot-tall giraffe and a giant blue whale, and the Hoosier Barn. The building of the North American Plains, Australian exhibit, Water Fowl Lake, and the Education Center followed soon after. In that inaugural year, the Zoo welcomed 270,000 visitors.
Over the next 22 years, the Zoo saw many additions, facelifts, and reconstruction. In 1965, the Zoo was one of a few in the country to employ a full-time education staff. Partly through donations of personal “pets,” the Zoo acquired more elephants, several species of monkeys and cats, armadillos, zebras, alligators, seals, wallabies, a bald eagle, and more. By the Zoo's 20th anniversary, its collection had doubled in size. The designation as a children's zoo had long outlasted its use, and the Zoo needed a new and bigger site.
In 1982, the Zoo held a first ever-symposium of international zoo, aquarium and wildlife authorities. Together, they established goals for developing a new world-class zoo. The founders knew it was important to preserve natural habitats, showcase diversity in species, and observe natural behaviors in order to save endangered species in the wild. The cageless concept of biomes and simulated natural environments would play a major role. Since the Indianapolis Zoo's 1964 opening, zoos have become more than a place to see animals; they are institutions of conservation and education.
The New Zoo
In June 1982, a letter of intent was signed declaring White River State Park the site of the new Zoo. Officials realized that the Zoo needed to be located in a more visible and accessible site, and a location in the heart of downtown Indianapolis would draw more visitors. Families visiting the Zoo could also spend part of the day downtown shopping or visiting other cultural institutions. The relationship would boost the city's economy and transform the still new White River State Park from a dream into a reality.
Once again, a massive fundraising campaign was launched. With the help of many community leaders, foundations and corporations, as well as 5,000 Zoo supporters, the groundbreaking celebration took place in September 1985 at the new downtown location. The Indianapolis Zoo was to be the first attraction of the White River State Park.
As construction neared an end, the 23 years of the old Zoo came to a close. On November 1, 1987, the old Zoo closed its gates after the last of the five and a half million visitors departed and began preparation for the opening of the new Zoo. With the arrival of new animals, the Zoo grew to five times its former size. Before the opening, staff continued working hard to adapt to new exhibits, equipment and employees. Much training was needed, and the relocation of 500 animals took weeks to prepare and execute.
On June 11, 1988, a new era of the Indianapolis Zoo began. It is a place where animals, plants, and people connect; a place where research and conservation efforts are on-going and Zoo staff have been named to key positions in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA); and, a place where students from all over the state can tour important behind-the-scenes facilities without leaving the classroom. These things didn't happen all at once, but today each function plays an important role in the Zoo's mission of fostering a sense of stewardship for the Earth's plants and animals.
With the construction of the Waters Building, and later the Dolphin Pavilion, the Zoo earned accreditation from AZA as a zoo and an aquarium. Then in 1996, the Indianapolis Zoo became the first institution in the nation to be accredited as a zoo, aquarium and botanical garden, the latter honor coming from the American Association of Museums (AAM) in recognition of the outstanding and very extensive botanical work done throughout the Zoo grounds by its in-house horticultural staff.
Since the Zoo's opening in June of 1988, many exhibits have been added. The efforts of the horticulture staff can be seen throughout the Zoo in every biome, as plants play an important role in transforming the Indianapolis cityscape into Oceans, Forests, Plains, and Deserts environments. The Zoo has more than 1,900 species of plants in its collection.
The Zoo's mission of educating the public can be seen on any given day. From summer camps, to overnights, to informational signage at exhibits, the Zoo strives to provide visitors with the knowledge necessary to actively pursue the conservation of the Earth's vast resources, not only for plants and animals, but also for ourselves. That is the message of the Indianapolis Zoo - all life is interconnected and when one piece suffers, the effects are felt by all. The vision of the founders still is shared today, as the Zoo provides the public with the necessary tools for the appreciation and preservation of life.