Special Reports

Animal magnetism

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Kikuyu, a 28-year-old aardvark, wanders by Jessica, 5 and Sierra Stillwell, 4, earlier this month. Staff biologist Jenn Donovan is practicing two facets of modern zookeeping - giving certain animals exercise outside their habitats and allowing people a chance to meet them. The philosophy represents an evolution from a time of concrete cages.

Metro Parks Tacoma archive
This circa 1910 postcard shows the pit that housed several species of bear over the years.

If not for Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, the red wolf might howl no more.

If not for Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, generations of South Sound children might have grown up without ever spying an elephant, a polar bear or a walrus.

If not for Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Dub Dub and ET, Cindy and Suki, Kenneth and Boris would have gone unloved in Tacoma. And they would not have loved us back.

There would have been a hole in the center of Point Defiance Park – and a missing link to an important piece of nature in urban dwellers’ lives.

For more than a century, there’s been no greater place to commune with animals on Puget Sound. The primal instinct of humans draws us to see the creatures of the wild. To imagine an elephant charging through an Asian forest. To picture a tiger stalking its prey.

Time hasn’t altered the desire of human beings to see exotic animals up close in the 114 years since Point Defiance Zoo’s informal beginnings, with a modest collection of two deer and an opossum. But the zoo has dramatically changed the way it cares for animals – and tells their stories.

“We’re past the days of walking in and seeing an animal in a concrete space and a sign that says ‘Polar Bear’ next to it,” said Wendy Spaulding, a zoo education specialist.

And Point Defiance Zoo, which is celebrating its centennial this year along with the park, has adapted – like an animal fearful of extinction – to the times.

Its evolution closely mirrors changes in zoos around the world. Along the way, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium has overcome financial crises and political turmoil. Animals have come and gone. Elaborate habitats replaced cages and fish tanks. But the zoo and the creatures within it have always tugged at the hearts of Tacomans.

“I grew up at the zoo,” said 56-year-old Betty Wolfe on a recent trip with 2-year-old granddaughter Elizabeth. “We used to come when it was free. My mom would pack a lunch and say, ‘Don’t lose the baby.’”

And off she and her siblings would go, making a beeline for the bears, then stopping to feed and talk to Cindy the elephant.

But for as vivid and pleasant as those memories remain, Wolfe likes today’s zoo even better.

“It’s cleaner and there are more fascinating things for children to see,” she said, pointing out a “cooler-than-cool” eel to a group of children gathered in the Discovery Reef Nature Center.


Metro Parks Tacoma archive
For many years, visitors to Point Defiance could feed the animals, as shown in this 1937 image. A cherry offered to Peggy the baboon in 1927 killed her. Today, habitats closely mimic nature - and keep zoogoers at a safe distance.

The menagerie in the fledgling Point Defiance Park was first assembled in 1891 with the donation of an opossum from Tacoma Railway & Power Co. Superintendent Hampton. Two deer joined the collection. And a zoo was born.

A herd of Roosevelt elk and bison soon grazed near the park’s entrance, where a natural bowl and duck pond lie today.

But what was a zoo without bears?

Park Superintendent Ebenezer Roberts, who’d raised two native black bears called Jack and Mollie from cubs, soon added them to the collection. Their home, a stone pit surrounded by iron bars, was completed in 1899. It would stand for 103 years and house a long string of bear species.

Now, the growing zoo needed a keeper. Oscar Olson, who had a little training in animal handling, took the job on Oct. 15, 1905, shortly after the federal government formally turned over the park to the City of Tacoma.

Roberts still wasn’t satisfied. A proper zoo, he said, needed exotic birds, more mammals and other animals, all suitably housed for the public to see.

He enlisted the aid of prominent businessmen to raise money for the creatures.

And he encouraged sailors pulling into port to bring birds and beasties from faraway lands.

“Tacoma being a seaport makes the collection of animals a comparatively easy task,” Roberts told The Daily Ledger newspaper in 1908. “The little ocelot who attracts so much attention with the park visitors, I bought for the reasonable sum of $15 from the steward of the German steamer Alexandria when she was here recently.”

Three years after the park and the zoo became Tacoma’s own, Point Defiance howled with inhabitants.

In addition to herds of bison, elk and pampas deer, black bears Jack and Mollie and the South American ocelot, Pat, the zoo’s cages and enclosures held creatures great and small.

Those included a huge Alaskan Kodiak bear; nine kangaroos; two Australian emus; eight coyotes; three bald eagles; an assortment of brightly hued parrots, parakeets and cockatoos; a monkey; and an alligator who slurped down goldfish from the superintendent’s lily pond.


When the zoo moved up the hill above the formal gardens by 1914, its ability to attract animals – and crowds – didn’t falter.

By 1916, the zoo’s collection grew to 246 animals that walked, stalked, crawled, perched, flew, scampered and slithered through its cages. Zoos across the nation – many of them founded in the years following the Civil War – were blossoming, adding animals and attracting huge crowds in their Sunday best.

The zoos satisfied that innate human curiosity about wild things from wild places. They fed the yearning to experience danger, letting visitors believe – but not know for certain – that the ferocious beast in the pit couldn’t escape.

The people of a young Tacoma took pride in their zoo and its animals, just as they did in the park in which it grew.

Among the first zoo celebrities was Peggy, the “Sacred Baboon of India.”

The offspring of zoo inhabitants Mary and John, Peggy soon gained fame as the only one of her kind born in captivity. The headlines, in the cutesy slang of the time, proclaimed “Stork pays visit to Pt. Defiance Park Zoo” upon her birth, April 9, 1926.

Later newspaper depictions showed her in a bassinet, with an ordinary baby bottle. She appeared next to a first-birthday cake with a knife and what looked like a burning Roman candle.

“Tacoma’s Famous Baby Flapper A year Old Today,” proclaimed a News Tribune headline on April 9, 1927.

Three months later, Peggy was dead.

A newspaper story said “the greatest attraction ever housed at Point Defiance Zoo” died of indigestion after a park visitor fed her a common cherry.

Tacoma grieved.

Peggy’s story is among the first in a long line of love affairs between the people of the South Sound and a parade of animals that captured special places in our lives, even as we held them captive.


From the beginning in 1891, the zoo was a bargain for visitors. It remained free until the Arctic Tundra exhibit, which featured polar bears, opened in 1981.

All through the Great Depression, animals and people poured in.

In October 1932, the zoo gained 40 animals, including four brown bears, two coyotes, a golden eagle and a hawk, from the Spokane Zoo, which could no longer afford them. All Tacoma had to do was pay the freight.

Newspaper reports from the era document a steady stream of new zoo inhabitants from sources likely and unlikely. Some came in trades with other zoos. Some were donated by the state game farm. Many were gifts from local outdoor enthusiasts and hunters who brought them back from area forest lands.

But park officials realized a zoo sitting on a point in Puget Sound needed an aquarium, too.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Gliding sharks still draw graps from visitors to the Outer Reef exhibit. Staff members interact with the creatures and maintain the tank during dives, like this one.

They authorized a trial run of one tank in 1933. A larger aquarium opened in the waterfront Point Defiance Pavilion in 1936 and grew to 20 tanks with more than 100 sea creatures. Admission to the aquarium in those days was 10 cents. Most of the critters inside came cheap – they were gathered by net in the waters offshore. Oscar the octopus was the main attraction.

But he was soon overshadowed by a 3-week-old harbor seal pup captured in Olympia’s Boston Bay and brought to the aquarium on Aug. 21, 1938.

It didn’t take long for the playful pup to become a star. A child who saw him bobbing in his wooden tub reportedly exclaimed “Dub Dub!” And the name stuck.

He lived at the aquarium for 33 years, delighting visitors who bought herring in cartons to feed him. He splashed around with such power and enthusiasm that signs were posted warning Dub Dub watchers they might get wet. He paddled around the aquarium like a dog. And he astounded scientists by losing his fur in 1952, growing it back four years later and losing it again.

The 325-pound Dub Dub, called the “Ponce de Leon of Point Defiance” and the “Methuselah of the Waterfront” by newspaper writers, lived long enough to move from his small wooden tank to a larger enclosure when the new aquarium opened in 1963.

When he died at age 33 in 1972, he was the oldest harbor seal in captivity, and he’d far exceeded the supposed 15-year life span of his kind.

Once again, Tacoma grieved.


As much as South Sound residents love their menagerie at the Point, crumbling buildings and dry bank accounts have endangered it three times since 1949.

The first crisis came on Feb. 27 of that year when The Tacoma Sunday Times exposed problems so serious that a 500-pound lion might easily escape, endangering visitors.

"No book, no documentary can take the place of the emotional connection."


marine mammal manager


“Danger Lurks in Neglected Zoo,” the headline read. “Point Defiance Rat Infested. Small Child Could Tear Off Door of Lion’s Cage.”

Time, vandals, weather, rats and rambunctious animals rotted the buildings and ripped holes in their walls, reporter Frank Herbert wrote. Zookeepers lived “in constant fear that the elk may escape and attack visitors.”

A shocked Metropolitan Park board voted the next day to tear down an enclosure that held seven monkeys and two lions.

The public raised just under $12,200, and voters passed a special capital improvement levy to rebuild the zoo. A $123,400 animal house was dedicated in July 1954. A Children’s Farm Zoo followed in 1959. The relocated aquarium opened in 1963.

The misfortunes also spawned the 1949 formation of The Zoo Society, a nonprofit group that’s spent 56 years raising money and good will for the zoo.

But a generation later, the zoo was once again in trouble.

Seeing that Point Defiance was constantly losing animals to other zoos for lack of space and again facing criticisms about cramped quarters and poor conditions, the park district asked for $7 million to rebuild the facility in 1977. Voters said yes.

The money would revitalize the zoo, allowing it to roughly double in size to its current 29 acres. It bid goodbye to the lions and tigers and adopted a new Pacific Rim theme, focusing exhibits on specific species.

The Arctic Tundra polar bear exhibit opened in 1981 to acclaim and awards. And in August 1982, a 155-pound orphaned walrus named ET, plucked from Alaska’s North Slope to live in the soon-to-open Rocky Shores exhibit, quickly won the affections of Tacomans. Today, 23 years and 3,235 pounds later, he still captivates us.

But perhaps no animal of the zoo’s modern era brought as much pleasure, publicity and heartbreak as Cindy.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Brownie, an Asian crested porcupine, makes a prickly shadow behind staff bilogist Shannon Smith. Regular stimulation - including this trip down a ramp - helps keep the animals from getting bored.

The 3-year-old 3,000-pound Asian elephant arrived from Nevada in 1965, having outgrown her gig as a shopping center draw. Schoolchildren raised money to build Cindy a proper house. But she grew into an unruly teenager, threatening her keepers. In 1982 she was shipped to a San Diego breeding program, where it was hoped she’d be softened by motherhoood.

Point Defiance officials, recognizing her popularity and the city’s responsibility for Cindy, vowed she’d be back.

The beloved pachyderm, who nearly killed a trainer in San Diego, returned in 1992 to a $2.3 million barn with heated floors, and to a progressive care philosophy that always put a safety barrier between Cindy and her trainers. In 2002, only a few months past her 40th birthday and suffering from arthritis so severe she could not stand, Cindy was euthanized.

Once again, Tacoma grieved.


The zoo grew dramatically in the last two decades of the 20th century, but it wasn’t always without pain and turmoil.

Financial problems stalked the facility’s success. Despite the admission charge, the zoo lived hand-to-mouth, competing with other park district programs for operating funds.

There were periods of infighting between zoo leaders and employees. An arrangement that put the Zoo Society in charge lasted only four years. In the late 1990s, threatened with the loss of accreditation from the zoo’s peers and frustrated over repeated bond issue defeats, parks officials again spoke of closure.

It took four tries to get money for the zoo, but in March 1999, Tacoma voters approved $35 million for a major renovation. In 2000, Pierce County voters agreed to a .01 percent sales tax to provide an ongoing source of money for maintenance and operations.

The infusion of cash solidified the zoo’s foundation and allowed it to build on its educational and ecological mission.

A cutting-edge philosophy known as "activity-based management" rotates animals among habitats.


Exhibits such as the 5-acre, $10 million Asian Forest Sanctuary, which opened last year, are designed to place animals in settings similar to their native habitats.

Tigers and tapirs and gibbons who have room to roam or swim or climb are more likely to exhibit behavior similar to their brethren in the wild, said Gary Geddes, Metro Parks’ director of zoological and environmental education.

A cutting-edge philosophy known as “activity-based management” rotates animals among habitats. When predators and prey trade spaces, for example, a tapir looks over his shoulder, worrying about the whereabouts of that tiger he smells, zoo officials say. The tiger goes on the hunt, and all the animals get a sense of living in the wild, the theory goes.

The Point Defiance program, which began last July, is still in the early stages, however, and few animals have been swapped, acting general curator John Rupp said.

The new zoos have humans in mind, too.

They offer “edutainment” – for a day, or an afternoon. A blend of smiles and laughter, oohing and aahing and yes, warm and fuzzy feelings, all designed to make you take note that the survival of many species is in danger, education curator Carla Collette said. Or to make you walk away thinking about what you, one puny human, can do to help.

When shows began in the new $3 million Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater last year, zookeepers arrived onstage aboard a wheeled kayak to simulate paddling through the Nisqually Delta, riding a mountain bike or maybe snowshoeing through a forest, senior staff biologist Karen Povey said. This year, they might rappel down a rock face or take spectators on an African safari.

The keepers, using hand commands and treats, show visitors how Lulu the aardvark uses her sharp claws to rip up logs and her strong snout and 10-inch tongue to slurp up the termites inside.

At the same show this month, Yukon, a Canadian lynx, pounced about 8 feet from a simulated half tree to a stump, as if leaping at his prey. The audience roared with approval.

“Oh, I love him!” an elementary school-age girl squealed.

But there’s a message buried in all that wonder.

People need to see animals up close, to hear them and in some cases feel them to get to know and care about them, marine mammal manager Traci Belting said.

“No book, no documentary can take the place of that emotional connection,” she added.

Making that connection is a major piece of the 21st century zoo’s mission.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
A bald eagle protests, but the injection by veternarian Mel Richardson will protect the bird from West Nile virus. Staff biologist Karen Povey uses a sheet to limit its stress.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Practicing trained behaviors prepares animals like this sea otter to receive routine medical checks, says staff biologist Lisa Triggs. She works in the Rocky Shores exhibit.

Along with being entertainers and educators, modern zookeepers are also conservationists.

In 1973, Point Defiance agreed to lead a program to bring the red wolf back from the brink of extinction when few others wanted to take on the challenge.

The program, which began with 14 captured wolves, now involves 40 facilities nationwide. The zoo’s Will Waddell coordinates it, and red wolves raised in captivity have been released into the wild. The predators, considered one of the most endangered species in the world, once freely roamed the Southeast.

More than 100 wolves in 18 packs now prowl a five-county area in and around North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, said Bud Fazio, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service team leader for the Red Wolf Recovery Program.

Point Defiance “played absolutely a huge role” in that recovery, he said.

The zoo maintains a few red wolves for visitors to see. But the bulk of its work is done at a Graham breeding farm.

It’s not the only Point Defiance conservation program you don’t see.

Biologists are involved in programs around the world: clouded leopard research in Thailand, Arctic science research in Alaska, Sumatran tiger conservation in Indonesia. The list goes on.


The recently opened attractions have proved popular – and boosted annual attendance above half a million for the first time since 2000.

The final product of the recent bond measure will open next month: Kids’ Zone, a feature designed to instill what educator Spaulding calls “attitudes of caring” in 3- to 8-year-olds. Activities, from an “otter slide” for children to the grooming and feeding of goats and sheep to the Gecko Cling in which kids with Velcro on their hands “can feel what it’s like to have sticky feet,” are meant to teach kids empathy and love for animals.

A restored 1917 C.W. Parker carousel with newly carved animals is scheduled to twirl in the park next year, bringing a merry-go-round back to Point Defiance after an absence of many years. The Zoo Society is raising the $1.2 million for it, society executive director Kathleen Olson said.

Officials also are thinking ahead to the replacement or renewal of the nearly 25-year-old Arctic Tundra and Rocky Shores exhibits, zoo director Geddes says. That could easily cost $10 million to $15 million, he said. There’s also a question about how to replace the 42-year-old North Pacific Aquarium.

Whatever decisions zoo officials make, they must pay attention to the growing chorus of voices from animal rights groups, deputy director John Houck said.

The groups are working now to get elephants out of zoos and into large sanctuaries, but their main mission “is to get zoos closed,” he told the park board last month. “It is to turn the court of public opinion against zoos in our communities.”

He doesn’t think Tacomans will let that happen.

Certainly Lisa Hobbs, an instructional facilitator at Tacoma’s Edison Elementary, wants zoos to endure.

“They enrich us,” she said, as she and a friend squired a group of children through the humid air and shark-infested waters of the Discovery Reef Nature Center. “It’s where they learn what animals need to survive. This is where they make the connections to the environment. The expressions on their faces are just amazing.”

Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659