Accredited by the national Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Knoxville Zoo has a few distinctions not shared by other zoos. It bred the first African elephant born in this hemisphere, and has more red pandas than any other zoo in America.
Knoxville’s first zoo began in an unlikely way, with a newspaper’s 1923 initiative to start a park for poor children, boosted by a Birthday Fund, collected by children, based on their ages. But progress was slow. In 1935, thanks to the city of Knoxville and the New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority, a four-acre plot was established on a little-used hillside in Chilhowee Park. The Birthday Park, as it was known, included a stone shelter, a small playground, and a wading pool. There was talk of starting a zoo at that time, but no funding for one. Neglected and vandalized, the park was closed in 1946.
The News Sentinel launched a new effort in 1948 for a Birthday Park Zoo, using a little money left over from the 1923 fund. The city helped, though funding a zoo with taxes was controversial at the time. Its first attraction was an alligator named Al, the former pet of the Houk family of East Fifth Avenue, who had acquired the reptile on a Florida vacation when it was only six inches long. When Al came to the Knoxville zoo, he was six feet long. About 4,000 people came to see Al his first day.
Other animals followed, most of them donated, including six peafowl, two pheasants, two buffalos, some porcupines, ducks, groundhogs, pigs, elk, foxes, black bears, skunks, monkeys, donkeys, a mule, a hyena named Herman, two lions named Romeo and Juliet, and a talking crow named Jim. Knoxville policemen were on the lookout for loose animals to bring to the zoo.
An estimated 150,000 visited the Birthday Park Zoo during its first year. The zoo had no full-time staff at first, and was administered by Chilhowee Park. The zoo became known for its trained-monkey show, and claimed to be the second-biggest zoo in the state.
The News Sentinel parted with the zoo over a disagreement with city government, and in 1951 the Birthday Park Zoo became the Municipal Zoo. In 1952, the zoo hired a full-time staffer, who lived in an apartment above the small-animal cages.
In the late 1950s, 11-year-old Knoxvillian Jack Hanna volunteered to help at the Municipal Zoo. Later director of the Columbus Zoo and host of several television programs, Hanna became one of America’s best-known animal experts. He says his fascination with animals started at Knoxville’s zoo.
In 1963, the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus had a particularly troublesome African elephant named Louie, or Old Diamond, and donated the animal to the Municipal Zoo, which turned out to be unprepared for taking care of a seven-ton bull elephant. Old Diamond tore up his early enclosures.
Although the elephant raised interest in the zoo for a while, conditions deteriorated. In 1966, the Metropolitan Planning Commission announced plans for an expanded, modern zoo. However, funds were lacking, and by 1970, the old Municipal Zoo seemed to be coming apart. Some of the animals were euthanized; others were sold. But nobody wanted to move the big bull elephant. The Knoxville Journal launched an effort to “Save Old Diamond.”
Guy Lincoln Smith III (1922-1987), the son of the Knoxville Journal’s editor, was a successful television executive. As the old Municipal Zoo seemed to be dissolving, Smith and his wife, Patty, bought a lion cub named Joshua and took care of it until they could raise money to build a proper facility for the rapidly growing lion to live in. About the same time, Dr. Bill Patterson led the founding of the Appalachian Zoological Society, to oversee an educational zoo. The modern Knoxville Zoo was born in 1971.
The zoo successfully mated their most famous resident, Old Diamond, the main attraction at the old Municipal Zoo, with Toto, a younger female. In 1978, their daughter, Little Diamond, became the first African elephant born in the Western Hemisphere. Because African elephants are endangered in their original habitat, it was hailed as an important achievement, not just for the Knoxville Zoo, but for the elephant world. Only two months after Little Diamond’s birth, Old Diamond became father of the second African elephant ever born in America, when Hillary was born to another elephant mother, Sapphire.
• For more information, see Knoxville Zoo, by Sonya Haskins, A House for Joshua, by Guy L. Smith, the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection, and knoxville-zoo.org.