Apr 15
The Beginnings of the Dream for the Indianapolis Zoo

​By Craig Banister
Indianapolis Zoo Intern

It takes passion and persistence for a dream to become a reality. Lowell Nussbaum's dream was to bring a zoo to the city of Indianapolis, and never gave up on it.

It took more than 20 years for Nussbaum's dream to come to life, as the original Washington Park Children's Zoo opened on East 30th Street in Indianapolis on April 18, 1964. For 50 years, the Indianapolis Zoo has continued to grow and thrive with the help of the community, but it would not have been possible without Nussbaum's vision.

Nussbaum was a successful journalist with a career that spanned 58 years. In the early 1940s, he began writing about a mythical zoological society in his column for the Indianapolis Times. He referred to the society numerous times in his column for the next few years trying to raise support for the idea.. In 1944, he pressed forward and formed the Indianapolis Zoological Society. Nussbaum, who later became known as "the father of the Indianapolis Zoo," moved to the Indianapolis Star in 1945 and continued using his column to campaign for a zoo in Indianapolis. One such column in 1950 read:

"A letter to the editor in The Star yesterday interested me. It was written by Mrs. H. Leser, a relative newcomer to Indianapolis. Mrs. Leser wonders why a city this size is without a zoo. So do I. In fact, I've wondered about that more than a decade. Mrs. Leser also wonders what the public thinks about acquiring a zoo. I can answer that. The public — grownups as well as children — would like a zoo, and they'd like someone to do something about it. Someone else — that is! Back in 1940 or 1941 I began agitating in the column for a zoo. It seemed everyone was in favor of the idea. Several of us incorporated the Indianapolis Zoological Society to work for the idea.  … We needed money for buildings and maintenance — a substantial sum. Even more, we needed civic and municipal leaders willing to roll up their sleeves and help us put the idea across. We didn't get it. Then along came the war and the need for a zoo paled into insignificance alongside the war effort.  An attempt to revive interest after the war failed. We still keep the Zoological Society alive, though dormant, in case the time arrives when enough people, like Mrs. Leser, who want a zoo badly enough to give us a lift. Any of you big-money boys like to have a zoo named after you?"

In 1955, planning for the first Indianapolis Zoo finally began. Nussbaum continued using his newspaper column to help further the Zoo's progress by calling for donations. There were numerous accounts of young children giving small amounts of money from their piggy banks to help bring a zoo to the city. By the end of the fundraising campaign, they had raised more than $1 million toward building the Zoo. A lot of hard work and more than 20 years after Nussbaum first started writing about a mythical zoological society, the Indianapolis Zoo came to life and opened its doors to the public in 1964.

Following the opening, Nussbaum continued his involvement with the Zoo in his column in the Indianapolis Star, through the Indianapolis Zoological Society and by visiting regularly. He retired in 1976 after an extremely successful and impactful career.

Apr 14
A New Beginning for Deserts

By Kyley Collins
Indianapolis Zoo Horticulturist

The International Orangutan Center will not be the only new landscape you will see this summer. The exterior desert landscape is getting an overhaul after a large section was removed to make room for nearby construction. The horticulture department designed a plan to replace the missing pieces and will install the new landscape later this spring.

Prior to planting, it is extremely important to correctly prepare the site. Site prep is just as important as plant selection to ensure the survival and success of the new landscape. Rock garden plants are particularly susceptible to root rot in the Midwest due to high winter moisture and cold temperatures. To help alleviate this risk, a thick layer of gravel will go beneath a well-drained soil mix and a layer of limestone rock will be used to mulch the top. The sloped topography will also help to increase water drainage. To combat sub-zero temperatures, large rocks will be installed creating micro-habitats for the succulent plant collection. These areas will provide extra protection during the harsh winter months by heating in the sun during the day and warming the immediate area by night.

Of the new cold-hardy succulents going in, we are most excited about the red yuccas (Hesperaloe parviflora) and a new prickly pear cactus cultivar (Humifusa 'Mulberry Creek'). The red yuccas are not commonly seen here in the Midwest though they are hardy to our area. Much like our common yucca, they have tall stalks of flowers. The flowers are bright pink and have thin leaves. The Mulberry Creek prickly pear differs from others with its iridescent pink blooms. They will be intermixed with our yellow-flowering native prickly pear cactus. Other notable additions include exotic-looking mimosa trees (Albizia julibrissin), aromatic Agastache and a colorful array of Penstemon flowers.

While decreased in square footage, the new desert landscape is sure to impress with its bright colors and increased plant diversity. Whether you are strolling through the zoo on foot or riding the new sky ride above, you will not want to miss this colorful collection of new and unusual plants!

Feb 19
Celebrities Share Their Orangutan Connections

Scott Jones video.JPGWhat do a CEO and an orangutan have in common?  Plenty! That’s what Scott A Jones, CEO and co-founder of ChaCha, recently discovered.

Jones is one of thousands of Indianapolis Zoo fans who discovered their orangutan connections by taking the personality quiz on AzyAndFriends.com. He is also one of several well-known leaders and celebrities with ties to Indiana who’s telling people about that unique connection as part of a new video series.

With less than five months remaining before the public opening of the International Orangutan Center, the Zoo recently began releasing these fun videos showcasing the personality quiz and the unique character traits of the amazing apes who will soon call the exhibit home. Jones’ video was the first released and in it, he shows how his personality traits are similar to orangutan Charly. Both are fun-loving, playful and creative. Jones also jokes that they both brush their teeth and like to nest at night!

Nicole Misencik IOC Video Shoot 1.jpgThe videos are 60-90 seconds and will be released individually throughout the next three months on the Zoo’s YouTube channel. WTHR-TV personality Nicole Misencik was also featured in another video. More celebrities will be revealed soon, so make sure to subscribe to the Zoo’s channel to see all the videos. You can also visit AzyAndFriends.com to take the quiz for yourself and discover your own orangutan match!

The personality quiz and the new video series highlight the amazing similarities between these great apes and humans, who share 97 percent of their DNA. They are also a fun way to get to know the orangutans before you can meet them in person when the new exhibit opens on May 24.

Jan 22
Cold Cuts... Hold the Mayo

Cold Cuts… Hold the Mayo!

By Adam Mitchell/Zoo Gardener

 treeIMG_0849.jpgHold everything! Actually, I’d like to talk to you about a different kind of cold cut. When the air turns chilly, it’s easy to forget that there are things you can do to keep your ornamental trees healthy and prepared for when Spring returns. Here at the Indianapolis Zoo Horticulture Department we start to think about winter pruning. Winter pruning has many benefits.  The first benefit is that your trees are dormant. This means that the trees are not actively growing.  Pruning a tree when it is dormant reduces the chances of causing or spreading disease. Cuts you make during the dormant season will not attract insect pests as they are not active in Winter. Pruning while trees are dormant gives the trees time to heal themselves before they put energy into leafing out in the spring. Since deciduous trees no longer have leaves in winter it is much easier to see what work needs to be done. Another benefit is that fruit and flowering trees such as Dogwood, Hawthorne, Bartlett Pear, and Crabapple will produce more vibrant flowers and more fruit after proper winter pruning. In addition, winter pruning opens up the air flow within the canopy of the tree.  Better circulation of air will help to prevent broken branches when the wind picks up. Winter pruning will also help you get filtered light though the canopy of your ornamental trees for grass or other landscape plants you may have planted beneath them. The filtered light will also help you to ensure that lower branches will not die off due to lack of sunlight. Last but not least, winter pruning can reduce the weight on branches and help prevent breaks.

tree2_0850.jpgJanuary is a good time to start looking at the ornamental trees you may have around your home to see what pruning they may require. One of the first things to look for is sucker growth. These will be branches that have popped up from the base of the tree during the past growing season. Suckers can even be found popping up from exposed roots. The next branch type is called water sprouts. These are twigs that usually form on the top of established branches and generally grow vertically towards the top of the tree. Water sprouts can also grow horizontally, and will account for a large amount of what you will usually cut out of your ornamentals. Next you will want to identify cross-branches. These are branches or twigs that have grown so close that they cross or in some cases even touch or rub. You will also want to look at any lower branches that may need to be removed to provide clearance for walkways, structures, or mowing, as well as any broken limbs in the tree. Now that you have identified what needs to be removed from the tree, it’s time to get to work.  The best time to do winter pruning is from February to early March. This ensures that your trees are completely dormant. If you were to start cutting in December or January you may risk winter damage to your trees. Cuts made too early can make it more difficult for your trees to heal themselves and may leave them susceptible to disease and pests come spring.


You will want to have a few tools handy for the task. Hand pruners, a hand saw, and loppers are a good start and will be all you need for most small ornamental trees. For medium size specimens you may need to employ pole pruners or a pole saw. For large trees it is best to leave that work to a professional tree service. Please remember, safety first.  Safety glasses and sturdy gloves should be worn. Be sure all tools that you utilize are sharp and clean.  Sharp tools help to ensure clean cuts and help to prevent tearing of tree bark as you remove branches. 


It is easiest to start from the bottom of the tree and work your way up to the canopy. Start by removing any sucker and water sprout growth. Then remove or reduce crowding and crossing branches. When removing unwanted branches from your trees be sure to not trim the branches (especially larger ones) too close to where they are attached on the tree. If you follow the branch to where it is attached to the tree you will see a slightly raised area (see figure 1). This is called the branch collar.  Your cut should be just above the collar. For branches larger than an inch in diameter you should use a three cut method. Make your first cut about six to seven inches from the collar. This cut should be initiated on the bottom side of the branch and only go ¼ of the way into the branch. Your next cut will be from the top about two inches farther out on the branch from your first. Cut all the way through the branch. This cut accomplishes two things. First the cut pattern prevents the branch from tearing the bark of the tree when you make your cut. Second, this cut takes the weight of the branch away from the final cut area at the collar. Now you are ready to make your collar cut. Again be sure to make your cut just above the branch collar. When pruning crossing branches, you will want to look at which of the two will benefit the tree the most. Be sure as you are making your pruning cuts that you occasionally step back and look at the tree as a whole. This will help you determine which branches to prune in order to shape the tree the way you want. Take extra caution as you get into the crown or top of the tree as you do not want to create holes in the canopy. If you are removing limbs for clearance of structures or for mowing, be sure to prune evenly from all sides of the tree to avoid a lopsided appearance.

finishedtree_0856.jpgWith these techniques you are on your way to keeping your ornamental trees healthy and happy. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of branches and twigs you generate out of trees if they have not been pruned for some time. Don’t be discouraged.  Come next winter you will again have pruning to do but it should be much less, and easier to accomplish. When spring comes along you will be rewarded for your efforts with vigorous growth, more abundant flowers, nuts, and /or fruit. Happy pruning! When you are done it may be time to have that ham on rye.

Jan 15
Oh Burn! Using Fire For Revitalization

By ​Giraffe.jpgVickie Young

Did you know fire can be good for the earth?

The Indianapolis Zoo's Horticulture Department, in conjunction with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, periodically does what is called a prescribed or controlled burn. Not something you likely can do at home, we burn down large patches of primarily ornamental grasses to clear the way for new growth.

The benefits of the right fire, at the right time, and at the right place can actually reduce the build-up of debris and dead vegetation which can produce uncontrolled wildfires that threaten lives and cost taxpayers millions of dollars. A prescribed burn can remove unwanted plant species that threaten plants native to an area. It can improve food and habitat for wildlife, recycle nutrients back to the soil, and promote the growth of trees, wildflowers and other plants. It also helps control insect pests and other plant diseases.

Burn 1.jpgPrescribed burns, above all, consider the safety of lives and property. Spring burn times should always be carefully planned ahead of spring bird nesting, herbaceous (non-woody stem) plant growth or wildlife emergence. At the Indianapolis Zoo, specific areas are selected in a thoughtful, skillful manner and a permit is required.

The best time of year for Indiana's prescribed burning is February through mid-April. There are very specific conditions that must be met for the prescribed burn to take place. The best time to start is between 10am and noon so everything can be completed safely before sunset. Relative humidity, wind speed and direction, soil moisture, temperature, rainfall, fuel moisture, air mass stability and topography all must be taken into consideration by Indiana DNR specialists. Temperature range should be 20-60 degrees. Lastly, the conditions must be favorable for the smoke to rise and dissipate quickly.

Burn 2.jpgSo, when you come to the Zoo in the spring and see some specific areas that look burned, know it was the result of careful and purposeful planning. Look around and you will likely see tiny new green plants already peeking through!

Photos by Jon Glesing


Jan 10
There's Plenty To Do at the Zoo This Winter

Kiak in snow-Jill Burbank.jpg
With the holidays all wrapped up, many people want to settle down for a long winter’s nap. But at the Indianapolis Zoo, it’s anything but sleepy as exhibits are open with many animals out all winter long! Plus lighter off-season crowds means a more personal experience for those willing to bundle up and come visit their favorite furry friends!

Petya_CarlaKnapp.jpgSeveral of the Zoo’s animals are perfectly at home in Indiana’s cold winter weather. Species like our Amur tigers, Alaskan brown bears, California sea lions, polar bear, Pacific walrus and red panda and many more come from colder climates and are right at home when the temperature drops. These cold-weather creatures can be even more active in the winter than the summer, so be ready for some amazing animal interactions!

To keep away the winter chills, several exhibits include special features that help keep the animals comfortable throughout the winter. For instance, one of the rocks inside the Tiger Forest is heated to give our tigers a warm, dry spot to lie down. And the pools inside the walrus, polar bear and seal/sea lion exhibits are all temperature regulated to keep the animals warm.

Flamingos in snow-Dan Boritt.jpgMost people probably wouldn’t think of our flamingos as “winter animals,” but they are perfectly well suited to colder weather. Although these brilliant birds will stay indoors if their exhibit is icy, guests can still visit them for most of the winter.

The Zoo’s indoor exhibits also offer plenty of year-round animal activity. Guests can enjoy daily shows in the Marsh Dolphin Theater or pet a smooth dogfish shark in the nation’s largest shark touch tank, located inside the Oceans exhibit presented by Citizens Energy Group.

Also in Oceans, the penguins are always on the move. Penguins are known for their winter-weather adaptations, but guests may not know that the Zoo’s penguin exhibit is maintained at a colder temperature year round. King, gentoo and rockhopper penguins come from the Southern Hemisphere where seasons are reversed. So while the Zoo is currently experiencing winter, the penguins are in the midst of summer!

It will feel like summer for guests who make the stroll over to the Hilbert Conservatory in White River Gardens. This tropical paradise is filled with lush greenery and beautiful blooms, making it the perfect retreat on a gloomy winter day.

The Zoo is open 9am-4pm Wednesday through Sunday in January and February. And guests can always save on their visit by purchasing advance tickets online

Photos by Jill Burbank (brown bear), Carla Knapp (tiger) and Dan Boritt (flamingos)

Jan 03
African Painted Wild Dog Population Declines

​​wilddog.jpgWildlife population decreases in the Sahara desert concern scientific organizations across the globe. A recent study led by New York’s Wildlife Conservation Society and the Zoological Society of London calls the species decline in the Sahara desert a “catastrophic collapse of its wildlife populations.” The study says the African painted wild dog (Lycaon pictus) is extinct from the desert along with many other species like lion, an antelope known as bubal hartebeest and scimitar horned oryx while cheetahs and gazelles are nearly gone. The African painted wild dog is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list of endangered species. It is estimated that there are only 6,600 adult African painted dogs left in the world with the population declining due to habitat loss, disease and conflict with humans.

The Indianapolis Zoo’s African painted dog is an ambassador for her counterparts in the wild. Tano helps people understand and learn about the dangers her species face across the world. Tano is a bit shy, but very motivated by food. Indianapolis Zoo keeper Holly Balok works with Tano on enrichment and diet. Whole prey is beneficial mentally and physically, so Tano will eat a whole rabbit — ingesting pelt and bones which is good fiber. She also gets enriched meat and femur bones and is motivated to track and find her food independently. Holly will hide the food and Tano tracks it down. Other enrichment focuses on scent with herbs, spices and extracts used to interest Tano. ​Reserve blood is frozen from meat and turned into the much loved African wild dog treat — a bloodsicle! Sounds gross, but Tano likes it.

wilddog2.jpgAfrican painted dogs can run 40 miles per hour and hunt twice a day. In the pack, every dog gets its share with food being brought back for injured or older pack members. They don’t have much trouble catching food since they can outrun most prey. Each year, only one female in the pack gives birth (six to 16 pups) and all the other dogs in the pack raise the pups. African painted dogs need a lot of space — 3,861 square miles. Indiana is 36,420 square miles and would barely be enough room for 10 wild dog packs.

So what can be done to shore up the future for this species? The IUCN has several recommendations including reducing conflict with humans, cost effectively surveying the dogs across large geographic areas, establishing sustainable techniques for disease control and studying landscape connectivity — where animal movement is blocked. The IUCN says many action plans are in place in Africa but there’s a need to increase public awareness and understanding of the dogs.  You can read more about these strategies at wwwcheetahandwilddog.org. You can also learn more about the conservation efforts for these animals by going to Painted Dog Conservation — which is an organization founded by 2006 Indianapolis Prize nominee Greg Rasmussen.

Top photo by Scott Olmstead; lower photo by Marci Haw


Dec 23
Holly and Joy Arrive Just in Time for Christmas!

Sea Lions.jpgJust in time for Christmas, the Indianapolis Zoo got a delivery filled with Holly and Joy!

Two female California sea lion pups, who both arrived on Dec. 11, are the newest additions to the Zoo’s Oceans exhibit.

Joy, the younger of the two pups, was born June 7, 2013, at the Marine Mammal Center in Santa Barbara, Calif. Her mother was being treated there for a condition known as domoic acid toxicity, or “Red Tide.” This illness occurs in marine mammals that eat sea life affected with toxic algae. It causes the animals to become lethargic and disoriented and can even be fatal! Because of her condition, Joy’s mother couldn’t care for her new infant, so the staff at the Marine Mammal Center stepped in to care for Joy.

The other pup, Holly, was rescued by the Marine Mammal Care Center at Fort MacArthur, San Pedro, Calif., after she was found stranded on a Malibu beach on April 3, 2013. The staff estimated she was less than a year old at the time, and in spite of being small and under nourished, she was otherwise healthy. But during her rehabilitation at the Marine Mammal Care Center, the staff noticed Holly wasn’t eating regularly and displayed some behavioral issues. Together with some vision problems, they felt Holly would be unable to compete successfully with other animals in the wild.

Since coming to the Indianapolis Zoo, both animals have been thriving. Right now, they’re undergoing a standard 30-day quarantine, which is a precautionary measure that applies to all newly acquired animals. But Zookeepers say the pups are enjoying swimming and interacting with Zookeepers and each other!

Sea lions 2.jpgHolly is now eating whole fish regularly and currently weighs about 65 pounds (that's her at the center of the photo). Zookeepers are currently weaning Joy, who is still less than 50 pounds. Adult female California sea lions weigh from 110 to 240 pounds, so these two youngsters still have a lot of growing to do! And their smaller size will make it easier for guests to pick them out of the crowd when they go on exhibit later this winter.

Holly and Joy are among several rescued marine mammals that now call the Indianapolis Zoo their home, including Pakak, a Pacific walrus; Ray, a California sea lion; Taz, an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin; Peppermint Patty, a grey seal; and Tak, a harbor seal.

Zoo Babies are presented by Community Health Network.


Dec 12
Make the Most of Your Christmas at the Zoo Experience

Group lights.jpg
From twinkling holiday lights and delicious treats, to activities in Santa’s Workshop and, of course, many of your favorite furry friends — there are so many wonderful things to enjoy at Christmas at the Zoo presented by Donatos and Teachers Credit Union. 2013 marks the 45th year for this spectacular event, and it just keeps growing year after year.

With so much to see and do at this time of year at the Indianapolis Zoo, here are five tips to help you get the most out of your visit to Christmas at the Zoo!

Bear.jpg1. Come Early and Enjoy a Full Day
Guests can enjoy Christmas at the Zoo activities from 5-9pm each night, but the Zoo actually opens at noon. So come early and have hours of holiday fun visiting with the many hardy Zoo animals that will be out enjoying the cooler winter weather. Guests who arrive early can also find the best parking spaces and pick up their free tickets to the Dolphin Adventure Show while seating is available.

2. Best Time for Bats 
Many of the Zoo’s animals are out and about during Christmas at the Zoo, including tigers, walrus, polar bear, red panda and many more! But one creature you might not think of is bats! Bats are nocturnal, and our extended hours during Christmas at the Zoo gives guests a rare chance to seeing our bats while they’re awake and active. Our two bat species, African straw-colored fruit bats and island flying foxes, both come from tropical climates. So how to they stay warm during the Indiana winters? Their Forest area exhibit is climate controlled to keep them toasty when temperatures drop. Learn more amazing facts about bats.

3. Find the Mistletoe
The holidays are all about giving, and again this year, we’re giving away a Dolphin-in-Water Adventure to two lucky Christmas at the Zoo visitors! So while you’re out enjoying all the holiday lights and decorations, try to find up to 10 mistletoes hidden on Zoo grounds because that’s the key to winning! When you spot one write down the location on your entry sheet (it’s on the back of your Christmas at the Zoo map) and hand it in at the Gift Shop to register. And here’s an extra tip: You don’t need to find all 10 mistletoes need to enter.

Carolers.jpg4. Ways to Stay Warm
The weather outside might be frightful, but the camp fires are so delightful! As you’re out enjoying the holiday lights, warm up by the fires near Santa’s Sweet Shop and Westside Café. At the Westside campfire, you’ll also find our carolers, who will warm your hearts by singing your favorite holiday tunes. A Cup of Cheer is another great way to help you chase away the winter chill! Pick one up at any of our food service locations and enjoy free refills all night long on hot beverages like coffee and hot cocoa.

5. Save on Your Visit 
When you’re planning a trip to Christmas at the Zoo don’t forget to pick up discount tickets (while supplies last) at participating Donatos locations and Teachers Credit Union locations. If there’s a Donatos in your neighborhood, they’ll even deliver tickets with your pizza order! You can also receive $1 off admission when you donate a new hat, scarf or gloves to the Mitten Tree that supports St. Mary’s Child Center. Plus, you can always save when you purchase advance tickets online.

We’ve made our list, and we want you to check it twice so that your Christmas at the Zoo experience is oh so nice!

Photos by Jason Wright (lights), Fred Cate (bear) and Doug McSchooler (campfire with carolers).


Dec 11
Meet Majani, the Newest Addition to Plains

Majani.jpgThe newest addition to the Indianapolis Zoo’s Plains Area will certainly make a sizeable impression on guests when he goes on exhibit in the spring.

Majani (pronounced mah-JAH-nee) is a 3-year-old male reticulated giraffe. He was born March 11, 2010, at The Living Desert in Palm Desert, Calif., and came here to the Indianapolis Zoo in mid-October. He went through a standard 30-day quarantine, which is a precautionary measure that applies to all newly acquired animals. Majani is now becoming acquainted with the rest of the Zoo’s herd, which also includes two females, Takasa (tah-KAH-sah) and Ajabusana (ah-JHAA-buw-sah-nah, also called “AJ”).

Zookeepers are hopeful that, in the future, Majani will contribute to our active breeding program, which is part of the Species Survival Plan managed through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Majani, whose name means "grass" in Swahili, already stands more than 12 feet tall. Although the young male is still noticeably smaller than the Zoo’s female giraffes (which you can see in the photo of Majani standing by AJ in the photo below) male reticulated giraffes can reach 15-18 feet tall, roughly 3 feet taller than females, on average.

Majani-AJ.jpgOur Zookeepers describe Majani as very shy, but they’re hopeful his personality will warm up during the next few months as he and the other giraffes spend the winter off exhibit in a temperature-controlled facility.

Guests will likely get their first opportunity to meet Majani in the spring, but you can get to know him before that in this adorable behind-the-scenes video. Plus, when the public giraffe feeds begin again in the spring, Majani just might wander over for a nibble! The giraffe exhibit and giraffe feedings are presented by Meijer.

Photos by Carla Knapp


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