Founded by John “Honey” Fitzgerald, the Franklin Park Zoo is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Christopher the lion, pictured here, continues to be a mane attraction. (Fran Cronin photo)
|The Zoo’s entranceway captures the natural spirit of Frederick Law Olmstead’s design of Boston’s Emerald Necklace. (Photo courtesy of the Franklin Park Zoo)|
|This undated photograph of the Franklin Park Zoo demonstrates the difference between the natural spaces of today and the metal bars and concrete of yesterday. (Photo courtesy of the Franklin Park Zoo)|
|The Franklin Park Zoo has undergone many transformations over its 100 years, but few have been as dramatic as the open grassland where these giraffes and zebras roam. (Fran Cronin photo)|
Celebrating its 100th birthday this month has been no minor feat for the Franklin Park Zoo. Founded on turn-of-the century dreams of a wide boulevard flanked by exotic animal exhibits, the zoo has had to reset pubic expectations and survive on starry-eyed wishes and hand-clasped prayers. Lack of sufficient funding has always plagued its tenuous existence.
Since its inception in 1912 by Boston’s first American-born Irish mayor, John “Honey” Fitzgerald, “the zoo has played an extensive role not just in the neighborhood but for the people of Boston.” said Dr. Rory Brown, zoo historian and Zoo New England board member.
John Linehan, president and CEO, has been a part of the 72-acre zoo’s “coming of age” since 1980, when he started working as a temporary laborer in the bird department. He quickly bounded up the zoo ladder, moving from the aviary to curator of large mammals and then zookeeper before being appointed to his current post in 2002.
During the intervening three decades, Franklin Park Zoo morphed from a poorly-funded, state-run agency to a non-profit established by Gov. William Weld in 1992. Though Weld gets the credit, it was then Gov. Michael Dukakis who initiated the zoo’s placement in non-profit hands in 1988.
The resulting public-private partnership, Zoo New England, also includes the nearby Stone Zoo in Stoneham. Both zoos are now officially accredited; Franklin Park Zoo has expanded from a staff of 30 to a year-round staff of 108, and Stone Zoo has been overhauled. The annual operating budget is $12 million. Last year’s attendance hit an all-time high with a half-million visitors.
During the zoo’s 100-year history, much has changed, including its mission.
“We have evolved from being an animal consumer to being an animal producer,” said Linehan, his head covered by a Zoo New England baseball cap.
Originally envisioned as a gateway to the country by seminal park designer Frank Olmsted and reinterpreted as a municipal zoo by Fitzgerald’s landscape architect Arthur Shurcliff, Franklin Park Zoo has in the past decade moved to align itself with the likes of state-of-the-art Bronx Zoo in New York City, and participates in collaborative breeding and conservation programs with other zoos around the country and world.
Strolling along the paths that cut through its landscaped habitats, one can see that Franklin Park Zoo, like many other modern zoos, is not just about show. Behind the scenes is a vast local and international effort to support the genetic lines of endangered species or to preserve habitats that support animals in the wild.
An accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Zoo New England has become a major player in the move to breed and preserve endangered animal species globally.
Eric Baitchman, Zoo New England’s Director of Veterinary Services since 2006, leads a consortium of partners to expand the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project. Zoo New England also supports Blanding’s turtle research and oversees efforts to protect this decreasing species in the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord.
But to understand the value and challenge of species conservation takes not just money but education, says Linehan. An avid steward of this mission, Linehan understands education begins at home.
A new playground and other play spots that dot the zoo’s grounds emphasize this goal, as does its popular petting zoo.
One obstacle to neighborhood access, however, is financial. The entry fee for adults is now $17. To get around this barrier, Linehan and Zoo New England have instituted incentives to family memberships that encourage active use of the zoo. Free and reduced entry-fee days are generously sprinkled throughout the year. The zoo sponsors an after-school program that draws heavily from its neighborhood and all public and private Massachusetts school groups are free. The cost to attend the zoo’s annual summer camp program is kept low to attract neighborhood participation.
Hundreds of youth that graduate from zoo camp have gone on to be Junior Zoo Teens and then Zoo Teens. Last year, 55 teens between the ages of 15 and 17 participated in the Zoo Teen afterschool program and learned not just about the zoo’s animals, but management and work ethos.
Guest speakers talked to the youth about life skills, college and financial responsibility. Linehan said it’s not unusual for him to review resumes or college applications. From this group, a fortunate lot of 55 college students are selected to join the zoo’s Teen Ambassador program. Last year, 25 students participated in this 400-hour international internship program.
“The zoo is the pride of this neighborhood,” says Linehan, “and needs to become its backyard.”
Franklin Park’s history is filled with remarkable stories — about people, landscape features and park activities. During World War II, there was a camp for Italian prisoners of war in the park who tended large Victory Gardens. In the 1960s Duke Ellington opened the Elma Lewis Playhouse in the Park on July 4th weekends.
The Minute Men from Dorchester stopped at what is now called the Resting Ground (also the Shattuck Picnic Grove) on their way home from the battle at Lexington. Ellicott Dale was home to lawn tennis courts. The old photos show ladies playing in their long skirts. More »
Prominent and emerging local artists will come together in Franklin
Park this Sunday afternoon for “Nature’s Gems,” a first-of-its-kind
holiday exhibit and sale of nature and community-inspired art.
Acrylics, oil and watercolor paintings, collages, mixed media pieces, photographs and sculptures — many of which were inspired by the city’s “Emerald Necklace,” a string of parks from Boston Common to Franklin Park created by famed park designed Frederick Law Olmsted — will be on sale, and 30 percent of proceeds generated by sales at the event will be donated for tree planting and woodland restoration efforts in Emerald Necklace parks. More »