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A Behind-The-Scenes Look At The Maryland Zoo

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The Round Cage, one of the oldest animal exhibit in the zoo, lies within an antiquated and now-closed section of the Maryland Zoo.
Clare Fieseler
The Round Cage, one of the oldest animal exhibit in the zoo, lies within an antiquated and now-closed section of the Maryland Zoo.

There is a section of the Maryland Zoo that is blocked off, shut down, and overgrown. The only signs of life are two South African Crowned Cranes, temporarily off display, that hoot while staff in golf carts whiz past.

According to Baltimore-native and zoo press officer, Jane Ballentine, the zoo doesn't usually allow tours of the Main Valley, an eerie landscape of the zoo antiquity. But when asked, Ballentine knows where to start.

"This is the oldest exhibit in the zoo, built in 1876. This zoo came into being in 1876. So, this was one of the first buildings here," she says.

The Round Cage looks almost medieval. It's a hulking wrought iron enclosure, now crawling with kudzu, and no bigger than a one-car garage. The last thing Ballentine remembers being housed there were hyenas.

It's hard to imagine anything of substantial size being confined behind these bars, on a concrete slab. No grass, no pool, no shade. Only a faucet and trough interrupt the concrete interior while glorified doghouses loom in the rear.

"Yes. It's completely sterile," she says. "Probably at the time, back in 1876, it was really just a place where you put an animal, you let people come and see it. You gave it food and water. And that was that."

The Maryland Zoo used to be run as a municipal zoo for the city of Baltimore. And like a lot of municipal zoos before the 1980s, it had periods during which it suffered. Other city funding needs took precedence, with no money to replace the Victorian or Depression-era cages.

The zoo stopped using the Round Cage more than 25 years ago, but it hasn't been torn down. Nor have officials demolished the vacant, rundown elephant house built in 1920, nor the rows and rows of tiled mesh cages built in the 1930s through President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA). These rows housed numerous animals of all varieties. Vines are now reclaiming everything, yet, remarkably, the buildings remain. Some zoo officials want to newly showcase these inhumane relics. An experiment in zoo outreach is being debated -- and for good reason. There's much to learn.

The old zoo format

To understand why zoos were originally designed this way, it's important to reach back to the early part of 20th century.

Lucille Quarry Mann, a former Bethesda resident, traveled around the world in the 1930s collecting animals with her husband, the director of the National Zoo. She passed away in 1985 but was interviewed by the Smithsonian Institution in 1977 for its Oral Histories Project.

Mann said the name of the game in the '30s was "anything rare." She and her husband would seek solitary rare animals, like a gorilla. When rarity wasn't found, they set traps or employed the locals to capture animals for them. On a monumental trip from Indonesia, they brought 900 animals back to Washington, D.C. Many remained quarantined in New Jersey while the National Zoo's director found homes in D.C. and elsewhere, including the Maryland Zoo, then known at the Baltimore Zoo.

"We'd take a freighter ship where we'd have all the cargo space we wanted," says Mann during the Oral Histories Project.

Back in the 1930s, zoos weren't for education nor breeding; zoos were for showcasing as many animals as possible. Mann clarified this repeatedly during the interviews.

"We just collected everything that came along. One time we came back with several hundred of this one kind of turtle, just because the natives kept on bringing them to us," said Mann.

Times, of course, have changed.

"We've seen some pretty drastic changes in the way animals have been first housed, because that's what zoos did originally. They were menageries with houses," says Mike McClure, general curator of the Maryland Zoo, as he gestures south towards the Main Valley.

McClure stands on a grassy hill overlooking the new, expansive elephant exhibit. He points out one elephant throwing dirt around to "bath" while another forages on the lush vegetation far across the field.

The elephants, Anna and Dolly, were brought there in1985 from a now vacant stone building in the Main Valley. Out of the "house," the elephants are now appreciated for their habitat needs as much as possible. But there's another change that defines a new era for the Maryland Zoo.

The new zoo format

Its management has drastically downscaled the number of animals in residence. But that means more attention and resources for their species of focus, like Anna, an African elephant.

"A lot of municipal zoos in the 1980s looked at privatization and this zoo went private in 1984," Jane Ballentine says, which made it easier to fundraise money, update infrastructure, and raise animal welfare standards.

And, in Baltimore, that meant the beginning of the 20-year phasing out of the now-closed Main Valley. In Mike McClure's opinion, transitioning to the "new zoo" format is still a work in progress.

"Look, we don't need to be San Diego. We can be small but focus on what we do well. And do it even better. And that's what we've been doing for almost 10 years now."

And as they pursue that mission, zoo administrators continue debating the fate of the antiquities in the Main Valley. Why not an expansive animal-free exhibit on the zoo's evolution? It would be the first of it's kind for any American zoo. Ballentine says it's an option on the table — one that might give visitors a new respect for just how far we've come.

Special Thanks to the Smithsonian Institution Archives for letting us broadcast parts of the Lucile Quarry Mann Oral History, Interview 2, Record Unit 9513.

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