In March of 1883, the Delaware State Legislature passed a law forming the Wilmington Board of Park Commissioners. Ten unpaid men were appointed to the Board to plan and build Wilmington parks. Eventually their effort yielded Brandywine, Rockford and Canby parks.
The Commissioners hired Frederick Law Olmstead, the famous landscape architect to find the best places to house these parks. He suggested the City purchase land on both sides of the Brandywine River. Mr. Olmstead planned the park as he planned Central Park in New York City and the Boston Commons in Massachusetts. In 1886, the land was purchased and Mr. Olmstead went to work.
Right across the river from where the current zoo is located, lived an Irishman named Archibald Rowan. He made the first printed cloth in Delaware. On the land where the Zoo now stands, there was a public amphitheater where people would go to hear famous orators of their time. Among them were Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay. It is even said that George Washington mustered his troops on the field above the zoo near the Washington Street Bridge during the American Revolution.In 1904, Dr. James H. Morgan came to the Board of Park Commissioners with the idea of starting a zoo in Wilmington. He was able to donate some animals if the Commission would pay for the shelters and fences. The boundaries of the zoo were much different than they are today. The main area of the zoo was the area of the old bear pit (across from the current Andean Condor exhibit) and the Exotic Animal House, and extended down the river. Ducks and geese, Belgian hares, a sea turtle, and a sea gull were among the original collection.
The residential area behind the zoo was considered Washington Heights and its civic association helped to manage the zoo. In 1905, the organization changed its name to the Wilmington Free Zoological Association, and the Wilmington Zoo was born.
Many different animals came and went from the zoo family. Between the years of 1921-1928, the zoo had donations of eleven elk, three buffalo, two eagles, five monkeys, goats, two black bear, ducks, parrots, two raccoons, one groundhog, and three alligators. In 1928, the old bear pit was filled in and three new bear cages were built. They still stand today in the Main Zoo, next to the Administration Building. During this time, the comfort station (Exotic Animal House) was changed into a monkey house with big wire cages housing mangabees, macaques and squirrel monkeys among others.
The next big change happened in 1950 when the Society decided to build a children's zoo. The children's area was to be built on a storybook theme with aquariums, little houses and a bird sanctuary. R.R. Carpenter raised funds by donating the profits from family night at the Philadelphia Phillies professional baseball game.
The ground was broken in 1952. The Wilmington Lions Club was also a major fund-raiser on the project. There were eleven little buildings, each centering on a different Mother Goose character. All of the exhibits were brightly painted and housed farm animals collected each spring from area farmers willing to donate them. This area was located up in the far section of the zoo where the capybara and otters are now kept. In the first year of the Children's Zoo there were 46,000 visitors. The themed section survived until the late 1970's in its original fashion.
By 1963, the main zoo had fallen into horrible disrepair and was forced to close while the Children's Zoo remained open. 1971 marked the year that New Castle County took over the zoo and hired Hans Rosenberg as "Zoo Supervisor." He added to the zoo collection but kept the Monkey House closed to the public even though animals were still housed there.
In 1979, Tom Skeldon took Hans Rosenberg's place and developed the Delaware Zoological Society. During this time the Administration Building with offices and a kitchen were built. The tiger exhibit was built where an old duck pond had been.
Nancy Falasco became Zoo Director in 1981. She originally joined the zoo staff in 1978 as zoo curator. She served almost 37 years at the Brandywine Zoo through to her retirement in April 2013. She planned and implemented significant changes.
A new master plan was conceived and put into action. The old Children's Zoo facades were torn down and new exhibits were developed. A North and South American and Temperate Asian theme was adopted. Capital improvements continued with the construction of the river otter exhibit, new animal hospital, expansion of the tiger exhibit, new entranceway, and new restrooms. Improvements continued to be made.
Falasco also started the first structured conservation education programs at the Brandywine Zoo. She also helped establish a comprehensive program to support both on-site and off-site conservation goals, as well as conservation education goals whenever financially possible on a regional, national and international scale.
Falasco facilitated research and field studies of endangered species such as the Amur Tiger, Clouded Leopards, and Andean Condors and for conservation organizations such as, the Lion Tamarins of Brazil Fund and the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group.. These studies were made possible through donations made by the Delaware Zoological Society, the membership and volunteer organization that supports the mission of the Brandywine Zoo.
Under Ms. Falasco's leadership, the Brandywine Zoo became accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and maintained the accreditation from 1981 to present. To be accredited, the Brandywine Zoo undergoes a thorough investigation every five years to ensure it has and will continue to meet ever-rising standards, which include animal care, veterinary programs, conservation, education, and safety.
The Brandywine Zoo marked its 100th anniversary in 2005. Many generations of the regional community celebrated by revisiting the zoo and sharing sentiments of their affection for the animals and the importance of the Brandywine Zoo in their formative years for introducing them to the role that people have in species survival and environmental conservation.
Today, the Brandywine Zoo covers almost 13 acres of land and is home to about 150 animals. This number includes the animals in the Travelling Zoo Education Program.
The Brandywine Zoo is part of the Delaware State Parks and is managed by the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation with the support of the Delaware Zoological Society.
The Delaware Zoological Society is the non-profit membership organization that supports the mission of the zoo. When you become a member of the Brandywine Zoo, you become a member of this organization. Your contribution supports the conservation education programs and overall mission of the Zoo. Many local citizens are active volunteers of the Delaware Zoological Society and some serve as the board of directors. The leaders of the organization work closely with zoo management and volunteer time and expertise in service to the zoo.
Additionally, the Brandywine Zoo runs with the help of numerous volunteers and docents. In any given year, the zoo is honored to have about 50 to 70 community volunteers serving in the education department, physical plant programs, as general guides, and contributing professional services.
The zoo has, on average, 80,000 visitors a year.
Old Photos courtesy of the Historical Society of Delaware