1889–1950: The Early Days

Atlanta’s oldest cultural destination began the day a menagerie came to town – and never left. In March 1889, a traveling show bound for Marietta, Ga., stalled just south of its destination when cash flow problems forced its owner into bankruptcy. Left behind by defecting circus employees, the animals began to draw crowds of curious onlookers. Two weeks later, businessman George Valentine Gress purchased the collection at public auction and donated the animals to the city of Atlanta. City leaders relocated them to picturesque Grant Park, a favorite local picnic and promenade destination. Featuring a jaguar, a hyena, a black bear, a raccoon, an elk, a gazelle, a Mexican hog, lionesses, pumas, camels and snakes, Atlanta’s first zoological venue opened to the public that April.

Community involvement was part of the Zoo’s life from the beginning, with private citizens donating animals and Atlanta newspapers heralding new arrivals and spearheading fund drives. The largest of these resulted in the introduction of Clio, the Zoo’s first elephant, in 1890. The park’s grandest collection boost occurred over 40 years later when an unusual stalemate proved fortuitous for the Zoo. By that time, philanthropist Asa G. Candler, Jr. had accumulated an impressively large private menagerie on his estate on Briarcliff Road. Candler’s neighbors were less tolerant of the animals, whose sounds, smells and occasional forays off the property tried the community’s patience.

Already acquainted with Grant Park through previous animal donations, Candler proposed a solution for his problematic hobby. He would donate his wild things to the Zoo, provided the city raised sufficient funds to house and maintain them. Faced with the prospect of accepting a donation that would more than double the size of the Zoo, the city shifted into its first major fundraising campaign for the destination. In 1935, the park swelled with the arrival of the entire Briarcliff Road collection, which included elephants, leopards, water buffalo, elk, zebra, birds, a hyena and a sea lion, not to mention Jimmie Walker, Grant Park’s first tiger. 

Next: A Zoo Growing Up