Brookfield Zoo will celebrate the 90th anniversary of its opening to the public in a couple of years, which means there are very few people indeed who don’t remember when there was a time without it being a star attraction.
Though it’s a constant in the lives of anyone who grew up around here, it’s also true that the zoo has been ever evolving. Gone are the days when polar bears would rear up on their hind legs and snatch marshmallows – thrown from across the moat by enthralled kids and adults alike – out of the air.
The old children’s zoo, which you entered by crossing a bridge over a little man-made stream, was a go-to for families with little kids until it was bulldozed.
Another big attraction was the Primate House, or more accurately the jail cell-like cages at the rear of the building where understandably surly gorillas would be pelted with peanuts and occasionally hurl a fistful of dirt toward the crowd lined up at the rail, out of reach.
It’s almost unimaginable nowadays how visitors interacted with animals in those days, and it took 40 years for the zoo to put a stop to the practice of letting visitors feed animals junk food (though the ban was flouted for a bit more time).
The opening of Tropic World in the 1980s came as a revelation – you could observe great apes interacting with one another in a family group in something approaching a native habitat. This was no longer simply cheap entertainment but a story of conservation.
The focus shifted to animal welfare instead and also education. While the zoo has continued to evolve with great new habitats such as Great Bear Wilderness, there’s also been a sense the zoo was becoming more interested in the park as an attraction, an event space with a grand carousel, spaces to host weddings and corporate soirees, concerts and the like.
Now, however – perhaps not coincidentally with the appointment last fall of Dr. Michael Adkesson, who oversaw the Chicago Zoological Society’s veterinary programs and hospital operations – the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward animals.
The first large-scale project is the construction of a vast new indoor-outdoor habitat for the zoo’s primate collection. The great apes will be given more room to roam, their numbers will be expanded and visitors will be able to get up close and personal with the animals, like they can at Great Bear Wilderness and other exhibits at the zoo.
The footprint of the outdoor exhibit appears to be about as big as Tropic World itself. Slated to open in 2025, it will set the tone for other large-scale changes – putting animals at the forefront in the next decade.
We can’t wait to see the new ape habitat and witness the continuing evolution of Brookfield Zoo.