By Jay Ferguson, Louisville Water Museum Specialist
Fifty years ago, Archie, the star chimpanzee, and his simian companions performed balancing acts, walked on stilts, and rode bicycles and ponies to the delight of the many visitors to the newly opened Louisville Zoological Garden. The free 30-minute show was offered twice daily and three times on Sundays. Opening full-time in May 1969 with only 250 animals, the zoo was a far cry from today’s Louisville Zoo.
Louisville Water’s ongoing association with the zoo dates back more than 50 years. Neil Dalton, then Louisville Water’s president, was one of the original ten members of the Louisville Zoological Commission, founded in 1963.
Louisville’s history is marked with several attempts at zoological gardens. The first appears as early as 1876 and was in business until at least 1893. Little more than a decade later, in 1906, Edward Baumeister hoped to start a zoo to train exotic animals. A short-lived effort at another attempt to start a zoo started in 1923 but seems to have fizzled out the next year.
Then, after the conclusion of World War II, a series of concerted efforts began that appear to lead into today’s Louisville Zoo. Only a few months after the end of war, a new proposal for a zoo was presented. By the early 1950s, a site was even chosen:
George Rogers Clark Park was deemed a good place for the zoo. By the end of the decade, talks either continued or were revived once again for a zoo.
During an era of civic improvement, the effort finally took hold. Mayor Charles Farnsley backed a zoo with the advisory council forming in January 1963 to lead the way. In just a year, the master plan was completed, and construction on the facility began in 1965. Soon after, Louisville Water laid two 8-inch water lines into the zoo: one connection coming off Illinois Avenue and the other coming from Trevilian Way. The pipe made a circuit around and through the zoo with at least 24 individual meters to measure the facility’s water usage.
Over the years, the zoo underwent many changes. It enlarged its educational offerings, added new animals, and became more sophisticated in its care of these animals. Possibly due to expansion issues, some meters were located dangerously near, if not within, some of the animal enclosures, at times making it difficult and risky for meter readers.
Rick Keene, a Louisville Water retiree, read meters at the zoo for ten years. He recalled that a few meters were quite close to the animal enclosures. One meter was about a foot away from the inside fence for “an antelope-type animal.” Keene described it as “the size of a horse, larger than an elk and with straight horns.”
To read the meter, Keene bent over with his back to the fence. One time, the animal charged. Luckily, Keene caught a glimpse of it and was able to jump out of the way before it hit the fence, bending a pole, which stayed bent for years. Needless to say, Keene never again read that meter with his back toward the fence.
The Louisville Zoo now boasts more than 1,700 animals — many in reconstructed natural habitats. Louisville Water adapted to these changes and responded to the zoological gardens growing needs. Major renovations to the water supply addressed several issues, including pressure concerns and meter reading issues. A third supply main was installed in 2000. At the same time, back-flow preventers and master meters were installed on all three lines, eliminating the problem of reading the many individual meters, which were removed.
Besides addressing water supply concerns, Louisville Water — with its educational and pure tap programs — has been a long-time partner with the zoo. We provide reusable Louisville pure tap® bottles, self-serve coolers, pitchers, and bio-compostable cups for a variety of zoo camps, walks, and runs. For the zoo’s largest fundraising event — Brew at the Zoo and Wine Too! — you’ll find our staff operating a mobile station refreshing guests with a continuous supply of ice-cold pure tap.
Louisville Water’s educators offer interactive learning experiences during the zoo’s Earth Day Celebration, Drinking Water Week and several zoo camps. Last year, Louisville Water branded the zoo’s seven drinking water stations with fun water- and animal-related educational messages. Visit the zoo’s gift shop and you’ll find a co-branded water bottle with the message Drink Water. It’s a Zoo out there!
As the Louisville Zoo celebrates its 50th anniversary, Louisville Water can be proud of its more than 56 years of involvement and support.
And what became of Archie? After the zoo’s original director left, the zoo shifted from a carnival atmosphere to focus on research, conservation, and education. The chimp show ended in the 1970s, and its performers were shipped to the Miami Zoo.