A giant carrot, a house made of cheese, and barnyard chickens were among the attractions that greeted visitors to the Baltimore Zoo’s new Children’s Zoo when it opened in Druid Hill Park in 1963. “Most children’s zoos are full of fairy tale stuff, like Humpty-Dumpty, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk,” declared Arthur Watson, the Zoo’s director. “This one will be different. It will emphasize living things and nature.” And it did, along with its share of whimsy.
The Children’s Zoo was a combination petting zoo, storybook land, and barnyard intended to make every child’s “first introduction to animals a pleasant one,” said Watson. Young visitors could board Noah’s Ark (formerly a Chesapeake Bay fishing boat), climb into a tree house, ride a miniature train pulled by a replica 1863 C.P. Huntington locomotive, visit cows in a Pennsylvania Dutch milking barn, and wander in, out, and around other fantastical structures with animals everywhere. Chickens, ducks, and peacocks roamed freely while rabbits, sheep, goats, and donkeys stood within petting distance. More exotic fauna such as monkeys, parrots, and a baby tapir were also in residence but out of hand’s reach.
Interest in adding a barnyard feature to Druid Hill Park “to give city children a view of country life” had been floating around since 1937 when Baltimore City Councilman Jerome Sloman first proposed the idea. It took twenty-six years, and Watson’s unrelenting advocacy, to turn idea into reality. From the moment he was hired as the Zoo’s first professional director in 1948, Watson made it his mission to increase attendance. He believed that a children’s zoo was central to this mission and he eventually secured the necessary approvals and funding for construction. In the meantime, children’s zoos had become popular all around the country. Watson and his architect, Louis Cuoma, researched similar attractions to help conceptualize their own. Referring to his competition at other major zoos, Watson announced with typical bravado, “Let them compare our new [children’s zoo] with those and they’ll find that Baltimore has the best in the country.”
The site for the Children’s Zoo was carefully chosen to avoid tree removal and to be within walking distance of the main zoo. The milking barn was constructed on site but most of the fantastic structures and over-sized animals were created in the big, bright workshop of Adler Display Studios on Penn Street in southwest Baltimore. The zoo-within-a-zoo was enclosed to contain free-roaming children and animals, but also to allow the zoo to charge admission of fifteen cents for each child and twenty-five cents for adults. Watson rightly anticipated that ticket sales would soon cover the $250,000 cost of building the Children’s Zoo.
While seemingly modest, the price of admission for a family could add up at a time when the hourly minimum wage was only $1.25. The rest of the Zoo remained free but the Children’s Zoo’s pay-to-play policy sparked debate in the City’s op-ed pages. Some felt that the policy was exclusionary while others saw a need for the Zoo to generate revenue in order to grow and improve. Curiosity apparently outpaced criticism, with more than twenty-five thousand people visiting the Children’s Zoo in its first ten days. It would continue to attract the Zoo’s youngest visitors for just over two decades, until it was replaced in the 1980s by the expansive Maryland Wilderness exhibit, an ambitious new children’s zoo with a very different look and feel.