The history of the Palm Beach Zoo is over 50 years of progress, from a small red barn to a major recreational attraction for the City of West Palm Beach. It is hard to believe that a few barnyard animals have evolved to over 500 animals residing at the zoo. The zoo would not be what it is today without the help of one man. Paul Albert Dreher was born in Wurttemberg, Germany and was long interested in landscaping, which led him to obtain a degree in horticulture from the University of Hohen-Heim. After receiving his degree, Dreher moved to South Florida.
Palm Beach Zoo is located in Dreher Park, formerly known as Bacon Park. Bacon Park was utilized as a landfill and a tent city campground, which was destroyed in the 1928 hurricane. In 1932, Dreher took a job with the Parks Department for the City of West Palm Beach. Dreher’s love for landscaping led him to reuse unwanted trees and plants from other projects around the county, giving him the nickname “The Johnny Appleseed of Palm Beach County.” The 108-acre Bacon Park was owned by the state, leading Paul Dreher to begin a campaign to purchase the land. In 1951, the city of West Palm Beach paid the state $100 for Bacon Park which would be dedicated and renamed Dreher Park in October 1957. Paul Dreher then worked to develop the land into a usable park. The landfill was removed from the park, and swampland was filled in using backfill from the Palm Beach Canal.
Dreher envisioned a zoo for the park that would be an asset for the residents of West Palm Beach. In August 1961, it was announced that a zoo would be built in Dreher Park. Soon after the announcement, the Parks Department set to work building a red barn complete with a fenced-in barnyard with ample room for animals to roam. Using his own money, Dreher purchased for the barnyard ducks, chickens, rabbits, and one goat named Pepita. The “Dreher Park Farm Zoo,” which later became known simply as the “Dreher Park Zoo,” received its first exotic inhabitant when the Pilicy family donated a rhinoceros iguana on September 5, 1963. The zoo was free for all guests until 1970.
As the zoo continued to grow in size, so did the animal collection. A famous resident of West Palm Beach in the 60’s was Joey, the kangaroo. An airline pilot was between flights in Australia when he found a kangaroo for sale. He purchased the animal and flew it back to Florida. Unable to keep the kangaroo long-term, he gave Joey to his friend Walter Brooks III. Joey became infamous for escaping from Walter Brook’s home several times, making him well known to South Florida residents. Joey was featured in two issues of Life Magazine in October 1961 and April 1964 and was declared an honorary member of the Boy Scouts of America. Visitors to see Joey at the home of Walter Brooks were common, with a frequent visitor being Caroline Kennedy. In December 1961, Brooks received a letter from attorney Elwyn Middleton against the possession of Joey. This led to a Palm Beach ordinance that banned all pets excluding cats, dogs, canaries, parrots, and parakeets. A petition was started to repeal the ordinance. After two years of legal battles by Joey’s owners and Palm Beach residents, Joey was not permitted to stay as a house pet. On February 29, 1964, Joey was moved to the Dreher Park Zoo, where he remained a resident.
In the early 1960’s “Jett’s Petting Zoo” visited South Florida, intriguing the citizens with the presence of an Asian baby elephant. Although recently acquiring a famous kangaroo, the zoo was made up of a group of miscellaneous animals and lacked a major attraction. This led the residents of South Florida to campaign for the purchase of the young elephant for the zoo. The West Palm Beach Firemen's Benevolent Association worked to buy the elephant by raising 1,000 books of Top Value Trading Stamps. Top Value Trading Stamps, whose mascot was a cartoon elephant named Toppie, made it fitting to name the newly acquired elephant “Toppie.” On April 16, 1965, the four-year-old, 2,000-pound elephant arrived at the zoo, where she would remain for nearly ten years.
In addition to the acquisition of an elephant, 1965 also brought the first animal birth at the zoo. Zoo officials thought the first birth was going to be a pregnant miniature goat. They were surprised on May 19, 1965, when a squirrel monkey gave birth. The surprises that day did not stop there. Remarkably, the second birth of the zoo occurred on the same day as the first. White-fronted capuchin Clarabelle gave birth later that afternoon. The birth prediction of Nanny Belle the miniature goat became a reality on June 1, 1965, making her baby the third animal born in the zoo’s history.
In 1969, a group of citizens in West Palm Beach showed an interest in creating a society for the advancement and support of the zoo. With the support of the city, The Zoological Society of the Palm Beaches was founded on March 27, 1969. On October 1st, the operation of the zoo was transferred over to the Zoological Society. On October 5th, a ceremony was held in which Society President Charles Camus gave Mayor Eugene Potter the zoo’s first lease agreement. From this point on, the Zoological Society operates the Zoo, while the city owns and rents the land that the zoo is on.
Under the management of the Zoological Society, the zoo underwent major improvements. By 1971, many of the older enclosures in the zoo had been replaced, and several pathways were paved. 1971 also marked the arrival of Freddie the Alligator. Freddie was the first to hatch out of a clutch of eggs in 1969. His hatching was featured in the documentary “Alligator” produced by the South Florida Water Management District. A cartoon version of Freddie was the mascot of the Water Management District and remains so today. Freddie was lost in 1985 and was replaced by two alligators known as Freddie II and Frieda.
In the 1970’s, the Dreher Park Zoo acquired many of its first big-ticket animals. In 1969, Hammer the black bear arrived at the zoo. Hammer was one of the bears used in the television show “Gentle Ben,” a program in which a game warden’s son has a pet bear. In 1973, Princess the Bengal tiger became the zoo’s first big cat, marking a long history of the zoo engaging in tiger conservation. In addition to the arrival of many large animals, the biggest animal of the zoo made her departure. On March 12, 1975, Toppie the elephant was loaded onto a truck and moved to another zoo. In 1978, the zoo received Zelda and Henrietta the pygmy hippos.
On October 7, 1981, the zoo received its first Goeldi’s monkeys, becoming one of the few zoos at the time to have them. The zoo built the first outdoor exhibit for this species in the United States. 1981 also marked the arrival of Spanky, the zoo’s “weather predicting sun bear.” Each groundhog’s day, an event was held in which Spanky would see if South Florida had six more weeks of winter.
In the 1970’s to early 1980’s, the zoo fell on heavy debt. As the Zoological Society was relatively new at this time, the debt was a major issue. It was debated if the zoo should be relocated to the newly-opened Okeeheelee Park. The zoo met with the Okeeheelee Park Task Force to consider the move but later decided against it due to the added financial costs. The closure of the zoo was considered as a possibility if the financial condition did not improve. Paul Dreher, although no longer working at the zoo, urged the city to keep the zoo open. In February 1984, Michael July was appointed as director of the zoo, taking the zoo from deficit to profit in one year.
In 1987, Townee the Bengal tiger arrived at the zoo. Born in January, Townee was confiscated by the Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) after being illegally held as a pet in Miami. Soon after the arrival of Townee, Kali the Bengal tiger arrived from another zoo. Townee was a resident of the zoo for 20 years before passing away in 2007. Townee lived to be one of the oldest tigers in the United States.
Joining the ranks of top zoos like San Diego and the Bronx, the Dreher Park Zoo applied to become a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The AZA helps its members create higher standards for both animals and guests. Zoo director Gail Schneider led the charge to raise the zoo’s status, and the zoo was accepted and accredited in March 1989.
In July 1986, the zoo acquired Tayke the Florida panther, who was the only Florida panther on exhibit in South Florida. George the Texas cougar, who would one day reside at the zoo, was released into the Everglades of Florida by the FWC. George had a vasectomy before being released. The procedure failed, and George bred in the wild. George became a nuisance animal and was subsequently brought to the zoo soon after. A second vasectomy was conducted by FWC before arriving, and he then went on exhibit with Tayke. George’s second procedure was unsuccessful as well and resulted in two panther cubs being born to Tayke and George on March 17, 1995. Two weeks after their birth, Tayke accidentally killed one of the cubs. The other cub, later named Colin, was separated from Tayke and raised by hand. Although George and Tayke were later moved to another zoo, Colin remained a resident of the zoo for 17 years.
1997 was a turning point in the Zoo’s history. In January, the Dreher Park Zoo changed its name to the Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher Park, which was later shortened to the Palm Beach Zoo. With the help of a large gift from board members George and Harriett Cornell, the zoo’s board announced a $30 million redevelopment of the park. Their contribution is among the largest gifts received by any American zoo.
On March 19, 2000, Tiger Falls opened to the public for Townee and Kali the Bengal tigers. Tiger Falls now houses Malayan tigers, with which the zoo has successfully had three cubs born in 2011. Tiger Falls was the zoo’s first “immersion exhibit,” taking you from South Florida to the lush jungles of Southeast Asia. In 2001, the zoo opened the Florida Pioneer Trail, a recreation of a cypress swamp habitat. Later exhibits were added to this complex, such as the black bear exhibit in 2005.
The redevelopment continued with the installation in 2003 of the Zoo’s Interactive Fountain and Orientation Plaza where Zoo guests can splash in a 54-foot circular fountain that included 325 water jets and more than 200 colorful lights.
In 2004, the Zoo opened the “George and Harriett Cornell Tropics of the Americas,” an $18 million exhibit that displays jaguars, giant anteaters, capybara, New World monkeys, and a diverse collection of tropical birds. The expansive jaguar exhibit is widely recognized as one of the best exhibits for jaguars in America. Tropics of the Americas is the largest project in the zoo’s history to date.
The Melvin J. and Claire Levine Animal Care Complex opened on Earth Day, April 22, 2009. The 10,000 square foot facility is a five-million-dollar animal hospital located on the grounds of the zoo. It is the nation’s first LEED-certified (Gold) zoo animal hospital. Thanks to a grant from Florida Power and Light Corporation, it is equipped with solar panels that help power some of the hospital.
In 2014 to emphasize its mission, the Palm Beach Zoo changed its name to the Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society. Today, the zoo houses over 500 animals on 23 acres and sees approximately 300,000 visitors annually.
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