Nay Aug wildlife housing has long, troubled past

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Nay Aug wildlife housing has long, troubled past

Published: Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, April 7, 2009 12:56 PM EDT

Third of three parts

The Nay Aug Zoo was a center of civic pride for decades after it opened in 1920. In 1924 and 1935, new elephants were purchased using money raised by schoolchildren, a penny at a time. In 1955, about 500 people visited each day. Footage compiled by Hank Robinson into a film about the history of the zoo shows the park crowded with visitors during a summer day in the 1960s. Copies of his film are available at all Lackawanna County public libraries.

When Genesis Wildlife Center was officially opened in November 2003 in one of the former zoo’s buildings, Mayor Chris Doherty called up that past.

“Even I remember coming here as a kid,” he said at the center’s unveiling. “The zoo was a big part of the city’s identity. The thing I didn’t anticipate with this project was how much of an emotional hold it had on people.”

Critics of the wildlife center say the “emotional hold” of the park’s past — and a selective memory about the zoo’s history of mistakes — helps explain how the city has been able to persist in keeping exotic animals in an aging structure there.

“The mayor has very good company in our collective nostalgia for Nay Aug the way it was,” Eunice Alexander, a former Scranton resident, said. “I think it colored our thinking as a people. It just seems like we’ve allowed ourselves to think that we could have this.”

Ms. Alexander pointed out a “long history of keeping animals in too-small areas” at the park during a period when “we didn’t know any better.”

“But now, we know better,” she said.

A familiar debate

The debate over the future of the Genesis Wildlife Center is strikingly similar to the debate over Nay Aug Zoo that raged a quarter century ago, and another debate that flared two decades before that.

In 1983, the Humane Society of the United States named the zoo to a list of the nation’s 10 most substandard zoos. Sue Pressman, director of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society, noted “the exhibits at the Scranton Zoo are so outdated and sterile that there can be no understanding of the animals’ natural behaviors.” She called even the newest exhibits “archaic” by the standards of modern zoology.

The chairman of the local Zoological Society at the time defended the zoo by pointing out it was licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and it was visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.

“I think the city is getting more than its money’s worth,” said the chairman, W. Boyd Hughes.

Two decades earlier, in 1963, the Humane Society of Lackawanna County criticized the Zoological Society for its approach to renovating the zoo’s heating system, leaky roof and a drafty lion and tiger cage.

It had been a particularly dramatic year at the zoo: a bull elk gored to death a 10-week-old baby elk; a monkey bit the fingers of a zoo attendant who tried to capture it after it escaped; four monkeys and possibly a burro died from exposure to winter weather because the building was insufficiently heated; and a female lion killed two cubs after a faulty door allowed her to get into their cage.

“Zoos start in a spate of excitement and money, and gradually, both diminish,” Hilda Ziegler, the Humane Society’s secretary, said in her criticism of the renovations at the time. “The needs of the animals do not diminish when the money does. It is necessary to look ahead not only to next year but to the next 20 years.”

Tragic history

Before it closed in 1989 because of financial struggles, Nay Aug Zoo’s history was filled with stories of animal escapes, abuse by visitors and occasional tragedies.

In April 1964, two adult bears mauled to death a 2-year-old cub that had gotten into their cage. According to Scranton Times accounts at the time, three boys witnessed “the maelstrom of tangling fur, claws and teeth” as the young bear was killed.

Later that year, a 75-year-old zoo attendant was fatally gored by a bull elk that charged him while he was trying to protect employees fixing a water line. He died after suffering a crushed chest, collapsed lung and severe punctures of the abdomen.

In 1966, a capuchin monkey, described by zookeeper George Lowry as “on the ferocious side,” was shot and killed after it escaped from the zoo. That same year, a baboon was found dead in its cage with a fractured skull, evidently from being hit in the head with a metal bar.

In 1967, a 4-year-old alligator escaped for two days into Roaring Brook, where Mr. Lowry shot it twice in the head with a rifle, mortally wounding it. Less than a week later, someone entered the zoo and let a mountain lion out of its cage. The lion was tranquilized nearby, but during the excitement, an employee left open the cage holding a pony and two llamas, all of which briefly escaped.

The same month, Princess Penny, an elephant, choked on a stuffed toy that had been thrown into her paddock, and a zoo attendant had to retrieve the toy from her throat.

In 1970, a group of boys released two 350-pound Himalayan black bears from their dens. The bears were shot by police as they began wandering in the park near Lake Lincoln. A year earlier, a white fallow deer was found dead in the children’s zoo, near about 20 stones and a bloody 3-foot tree limb that had evidently been used to kill it.

‘Not a good zoo’

By the end of 1989, the joint city-and-county-run zoo was in debt and struggling to finance a plan to turn the zoo into a facility that better conformed to the natural environment of the hilly park or one that featured only animals native to North America. After a concerted effort to place the remaining animals in other zoos, the number of animals had dwindled from about 200 in the 1960s to three: two bears and an elephant.

By the time the last animal, Toni the elephant, was moved to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., it was acknowledged it had been unsuitable for the elephant to be kept without peers. It was also noted that a stiffening of the lower joint in her left front leg might have been exacerbated by standing on the concrete of her pen all day.

That year, for the second time in five years, the zoo was listed among the nation’s 10 worst zoos in an article published by Parade magazine. Although many defended the animals’ treatment at the zoo, Eleanor Ginader, a board member of the local Zoological Society said, “Truly, it is not a good zoo. We’d be the first to admit it.”

Three years earlier, in 1986, she had explained the problem with the zoo and a hope for its future.

“I’m sure that the Nay Aug Zoo in the 1930s was one of the finest examples of zoos at that time, but it is still a 1930 zoo,” she said. “It has not been updated; it has not kept pace with the times; it’s not had the money; it’s been one financial crisis after another, and so we have to change.”

She added, “We either have to have something that’s one of the best, even though it’s small, or we don’t have anything at all.”

Read more from the Concrete Jungle series

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