Monday, January 18, 2016

Arizona's First Zoo

January 11, 2016 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The Apache Junction Zoo was located next to the Apache Junction Cafe and service station. You can see the sign in the Tamarisk trees. George Curtis planted the trees to shade the animals and because they were drought resistant. Photo circa 1954. 
Arizona’s first zoo was located in Apache Junction, some forty miles east of the Phoenix Zoo or the old Maytag Zoo in Phoenix, Arizona.

George Cleveland Curtis, the founder of Apache Junction, immediately recognized the need for an attraction at his newly emerging business at the crossroads of the Apache Trail (SR 88) and the Globe-Phoenix Highway (Old West Highway or U.S. Highway 60) in 1923.

Curtis started his zoo with a chimpanzee named Jimmie, and continued adding animals to the zoo until he had a considerable collection.  His collecting was primarily limited to animals of Arizona, but he did have some exotic animals.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department issued George Curtis a permit to operate a zoo in the early 1930s. This permit was the first such permit issued in Arizona, and made Curtis’ Apache Junction Zoo the first official zoo in Arizona.

The Apache Junction Zoo was located immediately east and north of the Apache Junction Inn. Today this approximate location is along the western side of Basha’s Parking Lot and slightly to the north.

For several years admission to the zoo was free to the traveling public. Curtis started charging a dime admission to help maintain the facility. Some years later Jack and Beverly Anderson took over the junction and they continued this nominal admission fee to help defray the cost of food for the animals and maintenance.

At this time the zoo contained a variety of animals indigenous to the Sonoran Desert, but not exclusively. Anderson had a Mountain lion, Mule deer, Sonoran White-Tail deer, Peccary, Desert Bighorn sheep, Black bear, Bobcat, Gray fox, Kit fox, Coyote, Ring Tail Cat, Coati Mundi, Badger, Skunk, Mexican Raccoon and a variety of small animals native to the Arizona desert.

Curtis had a Mountain lion that gave birth to triplets. It was a very rare event for a Mountain lion. The births were reported by numerous newspapers of the day.

The collection of animals also included rattlesnakes, coral snakes, and some non-poisonous snakes. Anderson added exotic animals such as the African lion, Emu, Ostrich and a variety of snakes including cobras.

In the late 1970s several Arizona historians were not aware of the existence of the Apache Junction Zoo, therefore they all believed the old Phoenix Maytag Zoo was the first zoo in Arizona. This reasoning was based on the fact that they thought the Apache Junction Zoo was nothing but a roadside attraction. The Maytag Zoo later became known as the Phoenix Zoo and, today, is the finest zoo in Arizona.

Tommy Jones, a pioneer resident of Apache Junction, worked as the caretaker of the Apache Junction Zoo for more than a decade. Jones worked for Cliff “Pappy” Russell as an all-around handyman at his automotive garage on Ocotillo Street for more than a decade after being the caretaker at the zoo.

Jones had also worked as a cowboy on the old Quarter Circle U Ranch for the Barkley Cattle Company during roundup each spring and fall. The story was that Tommy Jones learned his riding skills and how to care for animals as a Buffalo soldier with the 10th U.S. Army Cavalry on the Mexican –US border.

George Cleveland Curtis did indeed establish Arizona’s first public zoo, even if some zoo professionals do not wish to recognize the Curtis-Anderson zoo as a zoo, but only a side road attraction.

My mother and father first visited the zoo in 1937 shortly after being married in Phoenix. I have many fond memories of the zoo as a small child. My first visit was in 1944 when my father paid my admission and took me through the zoo. I was living Globe at the time of my first visit and attending Hill Street Elementary School.

The Apache Junction Zoo operated for thirty-two years from 1923-1955. The zoo closed in the summer of 1955 because of a devastating flash flood. The Zoo was destroyed and many of the animals escaped into the desert. The zoo was never re-established.

Today, all that remains of the Apache Junction Zoo are a few old ancient photographs. These images preserve the history of an interesting aspect of Apache Junction’s history, hopefully one that will never be forgotten.