By Jacqueline Grant
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. SUMMER 2006
When city Parks Commissioner Wesley F. Hayes proposed in 1920 that Bridgeport open its own zoo, enthusiastic local residents donated animals (mostly birds), and legendary circus impresario P. T. Barnum, whose circus was headquartered in the city, contributed some circus animals past their prime. Hence the Beardsley Park Zoo, as it then was called, opened in 1922. From these modest beginnings, the park has prospered and is today a fully accredited modern zoo open to visitors year-round.
Beardsley Park had been donated to the city of Bridgeport in 1878 by James Walker Beardsley, a farmer from Monroe who had inherited a large amount of property—including the parcel that was to become the park—in the city. In 1884 the city of Bridgeport hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, most famous for having designed Central Park in New York City, to design the grounds of the 150-acre park.
The Beardsley Zoo grew steadily throughout the first half of the 20th century; in the late 1950s things really began to take off. In 1957 a record 200,000 people visited, and the following year the zoo received a $150,000 gift from Elton G. Rogers, a member of the park’s board of directors who had died two years before. Today the Rogers Fund is worth nearly $2 million and is used specifically for expansion and development at Beardsley.
In addition to gaining visitors and funds, the zoo also obtained many exotic animals. In 1959 the children of Mercara, India gave the children of Darien a 3 ½-year-old female elephant named Shakuntala as a gesture of goodwill and international friendship. A second elephant named Champagne arrived in 1969, having originally come to the United States for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The Children’s Zoo, today called the New England Farmyard, was dedicated in 1976, the same year that an American bald eagle exhibit opened. The two original bald eagles remain alive and well.
The zoo focused its mission in the 1980s, deciding to exhibit primarily animals from North and South America, a modification that made it easier to create exhibits that mirrored the animals’ natural habitats and better provided for their mental and physical health. An unfortunate consequence of this new mission was the transfer of the zoo’s last elephant to a zoo in Toronto. Visitors to Beardsley often express fond memories of seeing the magnificent animals during childhood trips to the zoo.
In 2002, Beardsley received its fourth accreditation by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. AZA inspectors visit the zoo every five years and determine whether the zoo meets or exceeds their standards for animal care, visitor services, and various other operations. Of the 2,000 zoos and animal parks in the United States, only 224 including Beardsley, are accredited by the AZA.
Today the zoo’s emphasis on creating naturalistic displays appeals to visitors young and old. The New World Tropics Building feels like a South American rainforest with its free-flight aviary for exotic birds including colorful troupials and macaws and its abundance of greenery and vegetation in the monkey sloth and amphibian exhibits. Alligators can be seen lurking in the water of the swampy habitat that was created especially for them on the former site of a sea lion pool. In the hoof-stock exhibit, animals including deer, bison, and llamas are no longer separated from visitors by fencing or cages; they roam through carefully designed landscapes restricted only by moats.
In April 2005, three Amur tiger cubs were born at the zoo; they now weigh more than 50 pounds each. The cubs are three of fewer than 1,000 Amur tigers currently in existence, and as they are an endangered species they have been generating much excitement among visitors.
After nearly 80 years, the Beardsley Zoo’s commitment to the preservation and conservation of animals remains steadfast and in a mere 90 minutes, visitors can experience all Beardsley has to offer. As the only zoo in Connecticut, it is still an exciting and popular destination for the more than 250,000 animal lovers of all ages who visit every year.
The Beardsley Zoo, located at 1875 Noble Avenue, Bridgeport, is open 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. For more information call (203) 394-6565 or visit www.beardsleyzoo.com.
Jacqueline Grant is a senior at Trinity College majoring in English and served as an intern with Hog River Journal this spring.