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Dickerson Park Zoo is 100-years-old this year, and a lot has changed since its beginning

Bongos at Springfield's Dickerson Park Zoo (photo taken November 20, 2023)
Michele Skalicky
Bongos at Springfield's Dickerson Park Zoo (photo taken November 20, 2023)

Despite DPZ's long history in Springfield, it wasn't the area's first zoo.

Dickerson Park Zoo is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, and, while it has a long history in the city, it's not the first such facility in Springfield. That distinction belongs to the Heffernan Zoological Park, established way back in 1890. It was located at the current site of Dickerson Park Zoo and was started by businessmen H.S. Heffernan and James Reilly.

The Heffernan Zoological Park encompassed 134 acres and was open for only four years. Animals at the zoo are said to have included things like zebu, moose, bear, tapir, ibex, yak, anteater, lion and cape buffalo.

“Heffernan’s goal was to have a zoo. When he had his small one at the time – one of the quotes of his was he wanted this to be a thing of beauty forever, which is really kind of cool because we still use one of the exhibits he had," said Joey Powell, PR/marketing director for Dickerson Park Zoo.

That exhibit was known as the bear pit, and it’s where the spider monkeys live today.

Jerome Dickerson Sr. purchases the land

In 1894, the site of the first zoo was purchased by Jerome Dickerson Sr. and became known as the Interstate Fair Association and Zoological Gardens. The property contained a racetrack and three stables and a large amphitheater overlooking the racetrack, according to the Springfield Democrat Souvenir Edition from August, 1894, cited in an article in Springfield Magazine by zoo director Mike Crocker in 1982.

The Springfield-Greene County Park Board purchased the land from the Dickerson Estate in 1922 with the stipulation that it always be known as Dickerson Park, he said, and it became home to Dickerson Park Zoo the following year.

Phelps Grove Park Zoo

But there was another zoo in Springfield from 1916 to 1923, and it was located at Phelps Grove Park, which opened to the public in 1914.

A bison at the zoo at Phelps Grove Park in Springfield, MO in the early 1920s
History Museum on the Square
John Sellars
A bison at the zoo at Phelps Grove Park in Springfield, MO in the early 1920s

“It was a city project, and they had the wildest variety. I mean, everything from alligators to buffalo to chipmunks," said local historian John Sellars. "Any kind of a wild animal that they could acquire for people to see, they acquired it.”

Sellars said those who cared for the animals at the time didn’t have much zoological knowledge.

“Give them food, give them water, and get out of their way,” he described it.

When houses began to be built south of Phelps Grove Park, the zoo suddenly didn’t fit with the area, and the animals were moved to the new zoo in north Springfield.

Jenny Filmer-Edwards, spokesperson for the Springfield-Greene County Park Board, said you can still see remnants of the old zoo north and west of the Phelps Grove Park Pavilion.

“You’ll be walking across the turf, and you may notice a square or a rectangle visible through the turf," she said, "and those are the footprints of former animal enclosures that were there for the zoo.”

Dickerson Park Zoo's history

Workers with the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps were involved in constructing native rock buildings in the 1930s at Dickerson Park Zoo.

Construction of enclosures at Dickerson Park Zoo in1933
History Museum on the Square
John Sellars
Construction of enclosures at Dickerson Park Zoo in1933

The current zoo has evolved greatly since its opening 100 years ago.

Crocker has worked at Dickerson Park Zoo for more than four decades, beginning as a reptile keeper.

“When I started in 1976, the zoo was really in awful shape. It was very primitive. It was very rundown," he said. "There hadn’t been a lot of money put in it by the city for decades.”

Visitors to Dickerson Park Zoo view an ol exhibit in a native rock building
History Museum on the Square
John Sellars
Visitors to Dickerson Park Zoo view an exhibit in a native rock building circa 1960s
The old lion house at Dickerson Park Zoo
Michele Skalicky
The old lion house at Dickerson Park Zoo (photo taken November 20, 2023)

But the Friends of the Zoo, a not-for-profit organization supporting the zoo, was formed in 1975, and it was beginning to raise money. And, while change was slow, it was starting to happen. An old native rock enclosure – which you can still see at the zoo but which is no longer a home for animals – was used to house lions then, but a new lion exhibit was built in the early 80s. A building where tigers were kept was demolished in the late 80s or early 90s, according to Crocker, and that species was moved to a larger enclosure.

The old reptile house, Swinea Hall – which is believed to have been part of a summer resort hotel dating back to the late 19th Century – was torn down, and a new reptile building was constructed. When Crocker started his job, zoo administration was on the top floor of the old reptile house. It has since moved to a much newer, larger building that’s connected to an education facility, built in the mid 90s. The education program at the zoo started as a volunteer effort by the Junior League of Springfield. The organization purchased a small mobile trailer called the Zark, which served as a classroom for many years.

Dickerson Park Zoo's Bush Country Cafe
Michele Skalicky
Dickerson Park Zoo's Bush Country Cafe (photo taken November 20, 2023)

Other changes from the 1970s to the early 2000s include the giraffe building, Cheetah Country, an animal hospital, the JLS Amphitheatre, the bull elephant building, a café, a new entrance and gift shop and the train – Titus Express.

A new master plan utilizing geographic themes was created in 1985, and the zoo became involved with the Species Survival Plan.

Snoopy, the hamadryas baboon

In 100 years, a lot happens, and that makes for great storytelling. Crocker remembers the time a male hamadryas baboon escaped his enclosure due to keeper error. He said he was in the office when he and other zoo staff were notified of the escape.

“Male baboons have very large canine teeth, and they are extremely aggressive and very dangerous," he said. "So, we went up to check on the hamadryas baboon, and, sure enough, he was out wandering around, and there were four of us – the former director, former curator, another supervisor and myself.”

Suddenly, the baboon jumped through the air, latched onto the zoo director and began biting, "and those big canines were just slicing right through his leather glove," said Crocker. "We did manage to catch him without any further thing.”

That same baboon – who was named Snoopy but who was nothing like the adorable cartoon character, Crocker said – didn’t like women with light-colored hair.

“He would throw poop at them, and he was pretty accurate," said Crocker. "He would sometimes hit them in the face or, if their mouth was open, he'd throw it in their mouth. And, if a man and woman embraced in front of that area, that would just send him into a rage of screaming and throwing poop and stuff. So, a lot of people that visited the zoo in the 70s and maybe the early 80s, they remember that particular animal.”

Changes in animal care

Much has changed in animal care at the zoo over the years. The facility has been an Association of Zoos and Aquariums accredited zoo since 1986.

"Not only us, but zoos in general — we've learned more over time so that we can improve the conditions for the animals that are in our care," said Crocker.

A cheetah at Dickerson Park Zoo
Michele Skalicky
A cheetah at Dickerson Park Zoo (photo taken November 20, 2023)

Dickerson Park Zoo is part of the AZA's Species Survival Plan. The zoo’s cheetahs were part of the plan, and several cheetah cubs have been born in Springfield. Other species at the zoo that are part of the plan are the Malayan tiger and the maned wolves, said Powell.

For a time, the zoo was part of breeding elephants, and eight calves were born there — the first was Kate in 1991. That program ended, however, after five of the calves died from the endotheliotropic herpesvirus.

Other significant parts of Dickerson Park Zoo's History

The zoo played a key role in helping bring bald eagles back from extinction.

And the zoo's longtime resident hippo Henry was sent to a new hippo exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo and fathered Fiona — who was born prematurely and attracted worldwide attention.

Powell invites people to come back to the 100-year-old zoo if they haven’t been there for awhile “and walk around and see how it’s grown, how it’s changed, the improvements, the color, the murals, the animals. There’s so much that has changed, and not just in the level of care provided to the animals, but in employees, the staff, the docents, volunteers," she said. "There’s just a whole network that keeps things going.”

The zoo today has around 150 docents – volunteers who work to educate people about the animals that live there and do other tasks.

Powell said their mission is simply to connect people with animals. The zoo, she said, has an inward focus on its own community but an outward focus on the whole planet.

A goat in the petting zoo area of Dickerson Park Zoo
Michele Skalicky
A goat in the petting zoo area of Dickerson Park Zoo (photo taken November 20, 2023)

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.