This summer celebrates the 61st birthday of Donna, who, when she was four, came to Evansville from Memphis. In her startling old age, she has survived her mate, Kley, by 30 years, outlived all of her eight children, and still enjoys five-gallon popsicles in July. She has arthritis, eats 12-and-a-half pounds of grain a day, and is the oldest living Nile hippopotamus in the world. Still, Donna’s not quite as old as her home at the Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden.
In 1916, Mesker Park was no more than a cluttered and undeveloped picnic area. Thanks to a $25,000 cash gift George Mesker gave to the city to purchase more land around the park, the dilapidated 50-acres became the site to one of the finest zoos in the country.
Gilmore M. Haynie, visionary and proponent of the Park’s transformation, became the executive secretary of the city park board in 1916, and later the board’s president. Once Mesker’s donation was realized, both Haynie and Mayor Benjamin Bosse created a plan to change the face of Mesker Park. The next 15 years saw weeds pulled, paths built, lights added, areas cleared, and a fine menagerie of random critters added to the planned zoo, featuring a goat, three rabbits, one raccoon, and six chickens. Belle and Brutus, the main attractions, were gifted lions from the American Circus Association, followed by a black bear from the Denver Zoo. On June 14, 1929, the park acquired its biggest creature when Kay, an 11,000-pound elephant, joined the team.
Haynie utilized Works Progress Administration labor and efficient building strategies to do with $250,000 dollars what $2 million projected dollars would have done. He oversaw the design and construction of one the first barless bear exhibits in the country, followed by the unique, one-third concrete scale model of Christopher Columbus’ “Santa Maria,” crewed by 20 rhesus monkeys.
Haynie, whose wife Mildred founded Haynie Travel in 1938, was a world traveler who was inspired by zoos he visited in Germany for these ideas. Barless exhibits became the zoological standard for innovative and best practices largely due to the concepts he introduced in Evansville.
In 1936, Mesker donated more funds to build the Mesker Amphitheatre that boasted seating room for 8,500. Mesker Park Zoo was rapidly becoming Evansville’s number one attraction, receiving international renown for its ingenuity, creativity, and unique topographical use of space.
During the zoo’s initial design, Haynie contributed to another innovative barless den, this time for the lions, with spot-on botanical accuracy and an imitation African watering hole smack dab in the center of the zoo. “It created a draw,” says Amos Morris, current director of the zoo. “The lions would stand on a pinnacle, and as you walk around the perimeter of the zoo you could almost always see them.”
Today, the 84-year-old zoo (officially opened in 1928) enters a new phase of development. “In the 50s, our zoo was one of the premier in the country,” says Morris. “It lost its luster in the 70s and 80s, and now we want to bring the old pride back to the park.”
The zoo has developed a 10-15 year action plan (estimated to cost $45 to $60 million) designed around building a whole new Africa. Morris is looking forward to large primates, like baboons, and to move Daphne the lion out of Asia and into Africa where she was originally meant to be, playing on the same magnetic pull Haynie did 80 years prior with Belle and Brutus. The plan involves relocating animals and updating areas, foremost being the renovation of the amphitheatre.
According to Donna Bennett, assistant to the zoo director, the current amphitheatre was recently shut down due to general need of repair. The planned amphitheatre has the potential to act as an alternative entrance to the zoo for after-hours activities, educational events, and concerts. It will have fixed seating for 7,200, with an additional 1,300 for lawn seating (the Ford Center seats 10,000), and the zoo’s ambiance of growls, hoots, and yelps.
The amphitheatre, says Morris, should be seen as an asset that will allow the zoo to do bigger and better things. “Everything we renovate or build is a revenue generating opportunity,” he says. Whether it’s area rentals, dining services, educational programs, monkey ships, or wildebeests, a zoo is an investment everyone in the community can benefit from. “Every dollar we spend turns into $2.90 for the city,” Morris says. By investing in the zoo through taxes, the community draws visitors to stores and restaurants.
Bob Haynie, Gilmore’s grandson and president of Haynie Travel, remembers the days when families could drive through the zoo. He also reminisces about the old carousel, a privately owned attraction across the street from the park. Though never owned by the park, the carousel was sorely missed when it was sold by its private owners in 1972 to Carowinds Amusement Park in North Carolina. Mesker Park wants to provide more attractions, amenities, and memories than ever before, though a lot of zookeeping protocols have changed. The monkey ship, for example, now allows children to ride bumper boats in its wake.
“We have big dreams and big visions,” says Morris. “But now, unfortunately, an elephant would easily eat up a quarter of our budget.”
Amazonia, an expansion project completed in 2008, has helped the zoo realize a 34 percent increase in attendance. There were 180,857 visitors in 2008, and as of June 20, 2012 (only halfway through the summer), the zoo has seen 112,434. More than 700 animals (200 different species) call Mesker Park their home. Attractions like the Discovery Center, the original 1930’s Kiwanis Shelter, the capybaras and tapirs in Amazonia, and the Children’s Enchanted Forest featuring otters and macaws have kept the zoo fresh and revitalized. The park is open 365 days a year, with events like Orchid Escape in February and March when visitors are immersed in a lush, 75-degree South American climate and can observe the delicate beauty of orchids with botanical experts. The zoo not only has the world’s oldest hippo, but also the world’s largest herd of sitatunga (think swamp deer) on exhibit.
Since the influx of visitors, the zoo has fought off the risk of their numbers plateauing. “We predict another 25 to 30 percent increase once Africa is renovated,” says Morris. Alongside Africa is a plan to facelift the North Americas section. Charlotte Roesner, marketing director, says they want to renovate the wolf exhibit to accommodate rare breeds of wolves and to house prairie dogs.
But it isn’t all about new ideas. Mesker Park Zoo has always been focused on providing an experience. “When you look around the park, you shouldn’t know you’re in Evansville anymore,” Morris says, “but in Africa.” The zoo is focused on putting animals in the most naturalistic and realistic habitats they can, for both the comfort of the animals and enjoyment of its visitors.
“A zoo is a reflection of your society,” says Morris. “It’s like stewardship: if you can take care of your animals then you can take care of your community.”
Two generations later, Bob Haynie continues his grandfather’s love for travel and the zoo. In February 2013, Haynie and his wife, Kristen, will host an eight-day African adventure in the Serengeti called “The Great Migration.” Accompanied by Amos Morris, the safari will partly benefit Mesker Park’s planned Africa redevelopment through the Gilmore Haynie Memorial Fund. The fund was set up as a place for people to contribute to the Africa exhibit in honor of Gilmore Haynie’s original contributions to the park.
The Haynies believe that travel focusing on wildlife in its natural habitat is a great way for participants not only to create lifelong memories, but also to develop a stronger appreciation for our zoo. Future destinations being considered are Central and South America.
The Haynies hope the trip will help people better understand the rich history and pride behind Mesker Park. “This is a trip that will be a life changing experience,” Kristen says.
The safari moves from a lush coffee plantation to the Tarangire Treetops, then on to a safari manor at Nrorongoro near a 1,500-acre conservation area. Finally, travelers will spend three nights at the Serengeti Explorer Camp where they will be surrounded by approximately three million large animals (elephants, giraffes, zebras, lions, and more). The wildebeest migration is an annual event when several herds relocate, making it the “largest movement of animals on Earth.”
For more information, call 812-477-8833 or visit www.haynietravel.com. If interested, come out to the zoo on July 25, from 6-8 p.m., and join David Schwenk, with African Travel, and Amos Morris for a presentation on the Tanzania trip.
Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden
Location: 1545 Mesker Park Drive • Phone: 812-435-6143 • Open: 9 a.m.-4 p.m., 365 days a year. • Website: www.meskerparkzoo.com • Prices: $8.50 for adults; $7.50 for children ages 3-12. • Under 3 is free. • Vanderburgh County residents receive $1 off.