The placement of news articles on page A 16 in the July 6, 1969 edition of the Chattanooga Times was haphazard, but it had insight into upcoming events.
One article praised the success of Zooville, a new addition to the city’s Warner Park, which has been attracting more than 3,700 people per week.
“We are very pleased that Zooville has proven to be a successful attraction,” City Commissioner Steve Conrad said at the time. The audience response has exceeded our expectations.”
The article noted that the animal facility allowed people to interact with and feed a small variety of farm animals and pets.
Elsewhere on the page were the results of the Lakeide Optimist Horse Show, held at the Champion Stables. Among those on the show was Darde Long, who won second, fourth and fifth places in three classes while riding a Dream Boy.
Within two decades, Long’s life and the zoo facility would be relentlessly connected and will continue to this day.
We present this hypothesis because last week the Chattanooga City Council unanimously passed a resolution authorizing a new 50-year lease for the Chattanooga Zoo. The lease to the zoo authorizes a $1 per year payment to the city for rent on a roughly 14-acre plot of land in Warner Park.
The city and zoo were operating under an 11-year lease agreement that expires May 14. In this agreement, the city will give the zoo $1 for every $2 raised by the zoo to improve capital, up to $250,000 annually.
Long, the zoo’s president and CEO, the same Long whose exploits on horseback were announced on the same 1969 page as the article glorifying the then-new Zooville, praised the agreement.
“We believe the partnership between Friends of the Zoo and the City of Chattanooga is by far one of the strongest and most beneficial in our community,” she said in a statement emailed to the newspaper. “The zoo has continued to grow and thrive under the leadership of Friends of the Zoo, and each new program, improvement or exhibition creates a more valuable resource for both members of the local community and those who travel to Chattanooga.”
But the zoo’s prospects weren’t always so bright.
The city, as it did in 1969, continued to operate Zooville, but what was written in the newspaper in 1980 as a “bright” comic about the zoo showed the city’s real lack of interest in engaging in the national shift toward habitat fairs and conservation education.
The deer in the zoo seemed to have four offspring, but the city had no way of caring for them. City Commissioner Jim Eberl said he had received an offer to buy it—at $25 apiece—and sealed the deal. Asked by a reporter who bought it, he didn’t know, but said “I got the town a hundred bucks for some deer, we didn’t need the surplus deer.”
When the commissioner was asked what buyers would do with the deer, he again said he didn’t know. What if they grilled them? asked. After realizing that it might not sound good to him, he left to make a phone call. A few minutes later, he came back saying that a woman on Signal Mountain had bought deer and was going to keep them on five acres. “It wouldn’t tarnish them,” he said.
By 1985, visitors to the zoo began writing letters to the then two dailies complaining about “sick, lifeless” animals and cramped cages, about animals whose “sad” behavior could be seen in their faces, and about animals with hairy, tangled eyes. A “cruel” presence, speaking of hungry, frightened and lonely animals. One letter even suggested that the city close the zoo.
Later that year, Long, who attended Auburn University and was an assistant at an animal clinic on 23rd Street for three years, was named a zoo keeper.
“I’m excited about the job,” she said at the time. I will work with [nonprofit] Zoo friends, we’re going to make some changes, some improvements. ”
Ultimately, it moved the zoo toward accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, leading it into a non-profit status and directing plans to renovate facilities and education.
The zoo’s master plan was adopted in 1993, accreditation was obtained in 1998 and the master plan was updated in the early 2000s. Since then, numerous exhibits have been created, the zoo has expanded, and animal diversity has increased to the likes of giraffes, meerkats, and anteaters.
Constants were Friends of the Zoo and Long, who now headed the organization for nearly 37 years and whose longstanding love of animals—as evident even when Zooville was a novice at Warner Park—led to become one of the city’s top attractions.