History of the Zoo

History of the Zoo - A beloved community destination for more than 50 years!

Community Support

As one of the largest zoos in the country that does not receive government support, we rely on our donors for everything we do. Every dollar we spend is strategically put to work, and every donor that joins us in our mission of conservation is appreciated. See the strides we have made in the past years through our annual reports and tax forms below.

Our Mission
The Indianapolis Zoo empowers people and communities, both locally and globally, to advance animal conservation.
Our Vision
The Indianapolis Zoo is a leader in advancing global conservation.
The Indianapolis Zoo
How it all began

The concept for the Indianapolis Zoo first emerged in the 1940s when newspaper columnist Lowell Nussbaum began voicing his dream of establishing a zoo in Indianapolis. Through his column “Inside Indianapolis,” which first appeared in the Indianapolis Times and then in the Indianapolis Star, Nussbaum campaigned for a zoo, spurring community leaders into action. By 1944, he and other founders had begun discussing potential sites for the facility. Their ideal was that the Zoo would be supported by admission, in-park sales, contributions and memberships, and that still holds true as the Indianapolis Zoo is the largest privately funded zoos in the country.

Momentum for the Zoo slowed during World War II, but Nussbaum and the other founders persevered by collecting animals, planning exhibits and finalizing the location for George Washington Park. Construction began Aug. 6, 1962, and the first Zoo opened at its original East 30th Street location on April 18, 1964. After following his dreams through to reality, Nussbaum later became known as “the father of the Indianapolis Zoo.”​ ​

 

The Indianapolis Zoo
Washington Park Children's Zoo
A Community Gathering Spot

The original Indianapolis Zoo was called the Washington Park Children’s Zoo, and had exhibits with an Asian elephant, penguins, camels, tortoises, buffalos and more! Visitors especially loved the Dutch windmill at the entrance as well as giant replicas of a giraffe and a blue whale, which were icons of the old Zoo. In its inaugural year, the Zoo welcomed 270,000 visitors.

Over the next 22 years, the Indianapolis Zoo encountered many additions and changes. Partly through donations of personal “pets” such as monkeys, large cats, zebras, wallabies, alligators and more, the collection had doubled in size by the Zoo’s 20th anniversary. The designation of a children’s zoo had outlasted its use and the Zoo needed a new, bigger site.​

A New Vision

Work Begins on Planning for a New Zoo

A vision for a new, world-class Zoo began to emerge in 1982. In addition to having more space, Zoo officials wanted the new location to be in a more visible and accessible site in the heart of Indianapolis to attract more visitors. They found the ideal location in the newly incorporated White River State Park. The Zoo’s founders also knew it would be important to preserve natural habitats, showcase diversity in species, and observe natural behaviors to help save endangered species in the wild. Central to this plan was the concept of a cage-less zoo, one with exhibits that simulated the animals’ natural environments. The shift in how the exhibits are presented was because, since the Indianapolis Zoo’s 1964 opening, zoos had become more than a place to see animals; they are institutions of conservation and education.

Attended by state and local dignitaries, important Zoo supporters and even a few animals, the new facility broke ground in September 1985 in White River State Park. The new Indianapolis Zoo was the first attraction to open in White River State Park.

As construction on the new facility neared an end, the 23-year run of the old Zoo came to a close, and on Nov. 1, 1987, the Washington Park Children’s Zoo closed its gates for the last time. With the arrival of new animals, the new Zoo grew to five times its former size. Before the opening, staff continued training and working hard to adapt to new exhibits, equipment and employees. One of the biggest challenges was relocating the Zoo’s 500 animals, which took weeks to prepare for and execute.

The new Indianapolis Zoo officially opened to the public on June 11, 1988. On that day, admission was $10, which included a commemorative admission ticket and full access to the “Do the New Zoo” Grand Opening Celebration festivities.

The new Zoo includes five exhibits, or biomes: Waters, showcasing more than 200 species of aquatic life from the world’s oceans, seas, rivers and ponds; Deserts, highlighting life in desert habitats around the globe; Plains, including animals of both the African and Australian plains; Forests, featuring animals of temperate and tropical forests; and Encounters, provide up-close experiences with domestic animals from around the world. Other main features of the new Zoo include an antique carousel and two 20th century reproduction horse-drawn streetcars, the tracks for which can still be seen winding through Zoo grounds.

In the nearly five decades since the first Zoo opened its doors, many things have changed about the Indianapolis Zoo. Yet one thing remains unchanged — the vision of Lowell Nussbaum to provide the people of Indianapolis and surrounding areas with a place to learn from and be inspired by animals. That vision is reflected even today in the mission of the Indianapolis Zoo: to empower people and communities, both locally and globally, to advance animal conservation.​

 

 

A New Idea
White River Gardens Created

As the first major development undertaken by the Indianapolis Zoological Society since the Indianapolis Zoo opened at its current White River State Park location in 1988, the addition of White River Gardens broke ground in October 1997. The Gardens’ designers intended to present traditional garden elements in a contemporary way, and White River Gardens is not the traditional garden that most people imagine.

White River Gardens formally opened to the public on June 13, 1999. The Zoo and Gardens share the same main entrance; however, the Gardens were initially maintained as a separate attraction until 2006 when it was included as part of the Indianapolis Zoo. Central to White River Gardens are the more than 16,000 plants, including both native and exotic species, many of which are rare or historic in value. The Gardens also include a glass-enclosed conservatory, outdoor design gardens, water garden, numerous artistic fountains and features, a wedding garden for ceremonies and receptions, 1.5 miles of winding paths and walkways, and an indoor/outdoor dining facility with a dramatic view of the downtown skyline and riverfront.​

While visitors will recognize a traditional formality in the Garden design, they will find much of the detail refreshingly new. It’s really more of an idea garden where visitors can see and experience innovative garden displays and gather inspiration and information to help them transform their home gardens.

A New Idea
Commitment to Diversity

Consistent with the Indianapolis Zoological Society’s mission and values, the Indianapolis Zoo is committed to creating and maintaining a diverse and inclusive culture in which visitors, employees, suppliers and community partners are respected and valued.

Science has demonstrated that plant and animal diversity makes for strong natural communities and the Indianapolis Zoo believes that diversity makes institutions stronger as well.

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Our Values
We value, encourage, listen to and challenge our staff, while fostering a climate of trust, respect and high ethical standards. We are committed to a high level of community inclusion and standards. We energetically and proactively advance the Zoo's mission and vision. We continually strive to provide the highest quality facilities and experiences for our animals, our visitors and our employees. We manage our operation prudently and with fiscal responsibility, and we maintain a long-term focus with plans that ensure sustainable growth.

Annual Reports

2017

2017 Annual Report
2017 Form 990

2016

2016 Annual Repot
2016 Form 990

2015

2015 Annual Report
2015 Form 990

2008

2008 Annual Report
2008 Form 990

2007

2007 Annual Report
2007 Form 990

2006

2006 Annual Report
2006 Form 990

Leadership

Mike Crowther, CEO
Robert Shumaker, Ph.D., President
Paul Grayson, Executive Vice President
Karen Burns, Executive Vice President
Jim Powers, Indianapolis Zoological Society Board Chairman