Visiting any zoo in the world today, you expect to find it surrounded by a fence. It might seem difficult, then, to imagine that for nearly a century there was no fence around the Baltimore Zoo. The zoo was open to anyone who visited Druid Hill Park, anytime day or night.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, after the Zoo’s founding in 1876, Druid Hill Park attracted residents of every race, age, and background. The park served as an oasis of natural beauty in the middle of an increasingly crowded industrial city. Visitors strolling through the park would happen upon a small zoo at its center.
By the mid-twentieth century, the Zoo had grown in size and automobile traffic within the park had increased. People could drive past several of the Zoo’s animal exhibits and sometimes stopped to picnic or just to observe the animals for a few minutes. This casual and carefree approach to visiting the Zoo by day, however, had a disturbing and destructive counterpoint by night. The local press reported all too frequently on grisly acts of vandalism against Zoo animals.
A 1968 report issued by the Baltimore Zoological Society, a friends group that supported the Zoo, noted that over the course of a single year, thirty-one animals were killed by vandals and another forty-nine killed by marauding packs of wild dogs. Stoning and poisoning were the most common causes of vandal-induced death, underscoring intentional cruelty. The Society advocated strongly for a perimeter fence and for charging admission to the Zoo, to protect the animals and to raise the revenue necessary to support their care.
The anticipation of these proposed changes sparked criticism in the op-ed pages of local newspapers. Some writers lamented the loss of unrestricted access to all parts of the park while others charged discrimination. One citizen complained in a letter The Baltimore Sun on July 8, 1970:
“First the animals were fenced in, now the public is fenced out. Once the turnstiles are in place and admission fees in force, the days of a casual stop at the zoo... will be over. A zoo visit becomes an organized expedition, money in hand, while penniless urchins are left outside to peer in at their financial betters.”
Despite criticism in the press, the Zoo completed its fence project in late 1970, erecting a nine-foot barrier around its three-mile perimeter. The Zoo also began to charge a fifty-cent admission fee to visitors over the age of fourteen. Vandalism and budget considerations prompted these moves, but by then the fence was also required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. In addition to the USDA, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums also now requires that all of its accredited members (including The Maryland Zoo) have secure perimeter fences to protect animals within a facility and to act as a secondary containment system.
While some may have felt inconvenienced by the Zoo’s new perimeter fence, the benefits were immediate and undeniable. Within one year of erecting the fence, the Zoo could afford to hire its first full-time veterinarian and reported not a single case of vandalism against its animals.