The Underground Winter Zoo

Winter is coming to the Pullman Zoo. Nowadays that doesn’t mean much. The gibbons and lemurs have moved to indoor enclosures, and many of the zoo’s other inhabitants– the bison, and llama– simply grow thicker coats. When Sheffield’s Vinyl Mfg. and many of the city’s other key industries closed down in the mid-80’s and took most of the city tax base with them, the zoo was one of the first institutions to feel the pinch of funding cuts. Even with the rebound of recent years, there hasn’t been much call to restore it, keeping it a shadow of its glory days. The elephants now roam a sanctuary in northwest Iowa and the other main attractions– the tigers and lions and white wolves whose statues still decorate the entrance– eventually went to the big cage in the sky and no money could be found to replace them. But back before the town came upon rough times, the winterization of the zoo was a project embraced by the entire community.

No child of the 30’s can forget the Whitestone’s Department Store windows, during the Christmastime rush. When other retailers would pack their displays with Kris Cringle or Bob Cratchet, Whitestone’s live animal display kept the crowds stacked four-deep every night. Children laughed and shrieked as the gorilla dressed in a beard and red hat attacked the 4 inch thick glass, while chimpanzees passed out gifts to rosy cheeked youths. And inside the store, the giraffe, its neck decked out in colored lights, munched on the holly. (Of course, that tradition was discontinued after a faulty wire caused the Great Stampede/Fire of ’34).

And it wasn’t just the retailers who lent a hand– the city government allowed the zoo to use the then-abandoned underground train station at Elsinger and 10th. During the Spanish Flu pandemic, the station had been turned into a make-shift prison to house foreigners and the cages worked as a perfect, if snug, alternative to the outdoor enclosures. Perhaps the most famous resident who stayed in the zoo tunnel was there during the winter of 1921– Oingo, a pygmy from the Congo, who was on loan from the Cincinnati zoo, having been the star attraction during the summer season.

The beginning of the end came in 1977, when out-of-town protesters padlocked themselves to the rhinoceros cage and refused to leave. They believed it was cruel to keep animals underground for four months out of the year. And while billy clubs and tear gas eventually restored order, its overzealous use also lead to the suffocation of most of the aviary and monkey house, also causing a smell that never seemed to leave, which is still detectable near that stop on the downtown 35 train on warm days. Perhaps it was the smell of progress, though, because the following summer the crowds didn’t show up in their regular numbers and the year after that was even worse. By 1986, with budgets being slashed citywide, the zoo was forced to lose much of its staff and sell the animals to game reserves and the burgeoning aphrodisiac trade.

But even today, when the carolers gather downtown in the shopping district, one can almost imagine an elephant’s call piercing the frosty air to trumpet our savior’s birth (and great deals for the entire family). Or the roar of an angry lion echoing from below the icy street, reminding us of the reason for the season.
– M. Vermeulen

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