“Snakes and Alligators Flourish at Tampa Zoo”, screamed the headline. Flourish would seem an understatement when you consider that the Sulphur Springs zoo in Tampa, Florida was reporting the birth of thirty-four diamondback rattlesnakes and the “setting” of two hundred alligator eggs—in September 1914.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park traces its founding to 1957, but that is not the beginning of Tampa’s zoo story—not by a long shot. That is not even the beginning of the Lowry Park zoo part of the story.
Tampa’s colorful history with zoos began shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. According to that September 1914 article, zoo manager C. M. Stokes also boasted about having a “big bear”, several llamas, a deer, some guinea pigs and birds. The next year, Mr. Stokes reportedly asked the City’s Board of Public Works for permission to move his animals downtown to Plant Park and open a free zoo. There is no record as to whether they took him up on his offer.
A decade later, in November 1925, the Tampa zoo story continues with this unlikely headline, “Proprietor of Zoo Taken into Custody Under Liquor Charge”. It seems that a zoo at Rocky Point on Memorial Highway was raided by prohibition agents because of its illegal brewery and the forty barrels of beer that were stored there.
Interest in forming a zoo in Tampa continued in 1926 when the Lions Club suggested the city build a zoo at Ballast Point and again when local politician Sumter L. Lowry, Sr. included the promise of a zoo in his campaign for re-election to the Tampa City Commission. Lowry’s campaign advertisement he said he wanted a “bigger and progressive Tampa” and he pledged to improve the city’s parks by adding a municipal golf course and a municipal zoo.
Lowry was true to his word because the next year, a “new monkey house” was being built for Tampa’s first municipal zoo and the city commission announced plans to purchase eight monkeys. The new zoo was located, appropriately enough, in the park that bore Lowry’s name. Community support, however, may have been called into question when someone quipped in the newspaper that “They won’t have to go outside the city hall for one or two of [the monkeys].”
But on January 11th, 1928 the newspaper reported that the city commission halted plans for the zoo to investigate $628 in unauthorized animal purchases. Due to a mix-up in the city’s approval process (for which Lowry took responsibility) the city refused to pay the bill for the monkeys and rare tropical birds. The animals were returned and by March 6th, plans for the municipal zoo in Lowry Park had been abandoned. It would be another thirty years before the Lowry Park zoo story would continue.
Serious discussions about a zoo in Tampa resumed in April 1957 when a citizen’s organization began pushing for the development of the downtown riverfront with plans that would include a museum, a planetarium, and a zoo. On November 15th of that year, the Chamber of Commerce decried Tampa’s run down and inadequate central library and the city’s “non-existent” zoo. And on October 31st, Anheuser Busch further confused the issue of a municipal zoo when it announced plans to build its own zoo at Busch Gardens. This caused some taxpayers to ask the city to save its money and cut funding for the municipal zoo.
Fortunately, Mayor Nick Nuccio’s “pride and joy” was the new Fairyland at Lowry Park. Although the only animals in the park at that time were the ones that supported the fairy tale theme—namely geese, pigs, sheep, chickens, and mice—the Mayor announced plans in December 1957 to purchase a couple of seals from the city of San Francisco, allowing the park “to take on the appearance of a good-sized zoo”.
On May 4th, 1958, the zoo received a donation of a lion cub named Penny and already had a chimpanzee that was yet to be named. On July 3rd of that year, officials from the nearby city of St. Petersburg came to inspect the Lowry Park zoo, saying they “want a zoo like Tampa’s”. By that time the zoo had grown to include seals, lions, a chimpanzee, deer, rare birds, bears, and penguins. Their visit was hosted by Mayor Nick Nuccio as a preview of what he called the new Fairyland Park zoo which opened to the public the next day.
The city of Tampa finally had what could legitimately be called “a good-sized zoo”. But was it a zoo of which the residents might be proud? Like most American zoos in the 1960s, Tampa’s municipal zoo struggled to compete for funding. Scarce tax dollars were carefully prioritized, first for public safety, then for public utilities, and finally, for non-necessities—like the zoo. Most people saw nothing wrong with keeping animals in small cages for their amusement, but that was about to change.
Two letters to the editor of the newspaper in October 1971 may offer a glimpse into reasons for the changes that lie ahead. One writer suggested that by allowing children to enjoy seeing animals in “too-small cages” was teaching them “inhumanity”. The writer called the zoo disgraceful and contended that “if the zoo can’t be kept right, it should not be kept at all”. Another writer said that it was heartbreaking to see the animals “in the conditions they are in at this so-called park”.
“Oh, please,” pleads the writer, “get Mayor Greco to get all the animals out of Lowry Park.”
That next year, in June 1972, an article appeared in the St. Petersburg Times Sunday magazine titled New Zoos for Everyone, Bar None. In it, the writer describes the Lowry Park zoo’s cages as being “dilapidated and prison-like” and he stated that Lowry Park, like smaller zoos, was making no attempt to improve. The writer suggested people were demanding that zoos adapt to meet “modern needs” but he optimistically suggested that the prognosis for the survival of zoos was good.
I saved that article because I was interviewed for it. I was a twenty-two-year-old zoology student at the University of South Florida who was preparing for a career in zoo management by working as a zookeeper at Busch Gardens. My belief at the time, as revealed in the interview, was that zoos could transform themselves from menageries into relevant institutions in American society. I am glad I was correct. I only wish it hadn’t taken more than a decade for me to circle back to Lowry Park and have an impact on the well-being of its residents.
Next week: Bringing Down the Bars