Charles Balzer probably didn’t think much of it when he fenced off one of the many spring-fed ponds scattered around Spokane’s newest park.
As the park’s first superintendent, Balzer was just trying to make the park a park. Fencing off the beaver family was a way for the former “city florist” to begin transforming the 60 acres of South Hill wildland the city was recently promised.
Soon, gawkers gathered to watch the beavers scamper. A zoo was born.
The story of the Manito Zoo is one that’s largely unknown to most Spokanites, even though it was the city’s premier park attraction during the first three decades of the 20th century. A trip to see and feed the animals living in the center of Spokane’s wealthiest neighborhood was at the top of most people’s minds for a perfect Sunday afternoon.
But what began quaintly enough with the rudimentary beaver exhibit ended 30 years later with the swift brutality of a .30-30 rifle. These bookends – the rosy goals of a new and growing city, and the hard choices brought by the Great Depression – do well telling the strange story of Spokane’s first and only official zoo.
Yet there’s so much more. A tobacco-chewing goat. A murderous monkey. Runaway bears. Some very frisky deer. The beaver family, though, started it all.
The exact year is unknown because of a thin historical record, but what would become Manito Park had its first glimmer of life in 1886, when Spokane County’s first fair was held on Francis Cook’s “farm on the hill,” according to Tony and Suzanne Bamonte in their book named after the park.
In 1888, the same year Cook’s streetcar first trundled up Washington Street and Grand Boulevard, the Spokane Falls Review newspaper was highlighting “Montrose Park,” as it was called, as ideal for picnics and family time.
Ten years later, Cook had sold or lost the land to a new consortium of owners, who promised to “make the city a present of the land,” according to the Spokane Daily Chronicle.
In December 1901, the broad outlines of the deal were known. The park would be 60 acres and, to take possession of the park, the city had to erect a fence around its perimeter, extend a water main up the hill to serve more development around Division Street and 14th Avenue, spend $15,000 over the next five years “upon the park premises.”
The deal was inked, finally, in 1903, and the deed came with a new name.
“It Is Named Manita Park,” read a Chronicle headline, incorrectly, on July 31, 1903.
With Manito, the city had a new park, Balzer, who had just been promoted from “city florist” to the superintendent of parks, had his marching orders, and the beavers got their cage. The exact location of the beaver pond is lost to history but at the time, the park was dotted with them, one of which was next to the present-day Park Bench Cafe.
Word of the “zoo” got around and the city of Tacoma sent a full-grown bull elk named “Old Preach,” after the retired clergyman who sponsored the donation.
Balzer built a wire fence to accommodate Old Preach and, to ensure he wasn’t lonely, gave him a roommate, a young billy goat named Billy who had a bad habit.
“Billy chewed tobacco like a thresher hand,” reported The Spokesman-Review, a predilection he passed on to Old Preach. The big elk would be seen regularly “mooching his crowd of admirers along the fence for a cud of tobacco,” reported the Chronicle.
One day, a Chronicle photographer snuck into Old Preach and Billy’s corral to shoot the strange duo. As he bent to snap his picture, Billy charged and, according to some accounts, sent the man over the fence.
Whether by design or accident of the all-too-human, tobacco-chewing ruminant, the butting charge worked to expand the zoo. A humorous account of the incident in the paper led a pair of wealthy Spokanites, Jay Graves among them, to offer to buy more animals for the fledgling zoo.
It didn’t take long for the new park superintendent, John Duncan, to add a dozen more attractions to the park. A pair of grizzlies were acquired from Yellowstone. Glacier Park gave a gift of six elk, three bucks and three does. A quartet of buffalo were delivered from Kansas. Somehow, Duncan convinced someone to give him an ostrich and an emu in exchange for just a few mallard ducks.
In 1913, the zoo’s first baby elk was born. His mother was from Yellowstone and they named him “Pow Wow the First.” The Chronicle said he was “mostly legs and feet to date.” Three years later, in 1916, the first buffalo was born, and the Chronicle said he was “mostly hump.”
Buffalo roamed where the Lilac Garden now sits. Deer and elk walked among the roses, or at least on the Rose Garden’s current location. The Spokane and Inland Empire Railway donated money to chisel dens into an outcropping of basalt near the park’s center for the zoo’s growing collection of bears.
In November 1910, a cub bear that “caused terror to residents of the Lidgerwood section when it escaped and later nearly caused a law suit between Rich (his owner) and the Humane society, now occupies a cage at Manito Park.” They called him Bruin, and he wasn’t the only bear to cause such terror.
In 1916, a bear cub that had been captured from the wild near Twisp decided he had enough. Within 15 minutes of arriving, he tried to escape. Such derring-do didn’t persuade zoo officials to secure his cage any better, and the little bear soon wriggled its way through the bars.
The zoo foreman, Felix Paquin, discovered its absence soon enough and formed a search party.
The following December day, the bear-hunting posse tracked its charge to Latah Creek, and twice “treed” the bear, but both times he raced down the tree and into the brush.
On the third day of the hunt, the posse gained a new member in a shotgun-wielding farmer, who took aim twice at the bear and, both times, missed. The chase continued for miles that day and, at one point, the posse was within 10 feet of the young bear.
“Had we wanted to kill the bear, we could have shot him a number of times,” said Duncan, the park superintendent. “Our plan of capture was to run the bear up a tree and have Felix Paquin, the animal foreman at the Manito Park Zoo, lasso him. The bear wisely steered clear of trees yesterday, as if he were aware of the plan of attack.”
Little did Duncan know that the bear had already won. The following day, Day Four, was Christmas and the posse took a day off, never to begin the hunt again. A few days later, the demoralized bear-hunter Tom Hopper and zookeeper Paquin said that the “bruin should now be allowed to return to his native haunts without further effort at recapture.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Manito Zoo bears would make the news.
A discharged soldier from Tacoma, fresh from duty in Alaska, brought home a pair of little polar bear cubs, which soon grew to outweigh him. His parents, perhaps wisely, put the bears up for sale for $200 and Aubrey White, president of the Spokane Park Board, raised the money and brought them to Manito.
On July 10, 1923, a 9-year-old named Elizabeth Harris was visiting the zoo with her nanny. Like many of the zoo’s visitors, Harris had a handful of bread to feed the bears. She stuck her arm into the cage, clutching the bread. The two bears pounced, severing her arm. Harris lived, and so did the bears.
Seven years later, on a 91-degree day in July, the second hottest day of the year, the paper reported that such heat “brought on the lust to kill” in one of the bears. He jumped on his mate with all four paws, breaking its back. “Attendants rushed to the cage and forcing the ugly uxoricide back with iron rods locked him in adjoining cage.”
The violence wasn’t exclusive to bears. An article described the drowning of two coyotes by a monkey. Its headline: Murderous Monkey Drowns Two Baby Coyotes In Manito Zoo.
“Five little coyotes were lying in the sun near the monkey’s cage, when the latter reached through the bars and drew one of them into its quarters and quickly threw it into a pool of water,” the article reported. “A second followed in quick succession. After repeating the act of throwing the baby coyotes into the water and watching them swim out several times, the monkey then held each in turn under the water until it drowned.”
It appeared the monkey was planning to extinguish the entire pack, but “the cries of women” alerted zoo attendants, who stopped the “murderous monkey.”
Such brutality wasn’t the only offensive thing about the zoo. While it remained a point of pride and joy for many Spokanites, the stench and sheer cacophony of the zoo grated on some of its neighbors. Visitors would goad the coyotes into howling. Cougars screamed. The hordes of animals, fed bread and peanuts by visitors, left behind countless pounds of excrement, surely made worse by their unnatural provisions.
But it wasn’t the noise, smell or fear that signaled the end for the zoo. Though the Olmsted brothers’ report from 1913 recommended closing the zoo because of insufficient space and costly maintenance, it was the Great Depression that shut the zoo’s doors forever.
In April 1932, The Spokesman ran its last uplifting story about the zoo, with provides details about Queen Marie, the ostrich, laying an egg that weighed more than 4 pounds.
That summer, the Schade Brewery, in what is now the University District, was called “the jungle” and it housed scores of unemployed, homeless single men. Jobs and money were scarce, and when Duncan asked for $2,977 to feed the zoo’s animals for the next year, people balked.
By a 6-5 vote, the park board voted to close the zoo. Duncan had until January to “dispose” of the animals. It was a tall order.
Duncan submitted an inventory of the animals to be “abolished” and noted that hunting rules prevented him from an easy path. Three buffaloes, one polar bear and one emu had “no open season for slaying them.” Also on the inventory: five elk, one fox, three raccoons, five bobcats, two cougars, six deer, three grizzly bears, three brown bears, one black bear, two coyotes, 70 pigeons, six pheasants, one golden eagle, two crows, one owl, one hawk and 78 ducks, 60 of which were mallards.
Duncan tried to find new homes for all the animals. The Sandpoint zoo got Maggie the black bear. The brown bears went to the Tacoma zoo, as did some pheasants, the eagle, the owl and pigeons. The deer were given to the Spokane County game commission and released near Blanchard. Elk were released in Pend Oreille County.
Not all were so lucky.
On Jan. 8, 1933, the paper heatedly exclaimed, “A polar bear was shot within the city limits the other day! Two grizzly bears were killed in the residential section of the south hill! Three buffalo bit the dust within two miles of the city’s downtown business center!”
Another article described the “sharp cracks of a .30-30 rifle” hastening the end to the beasts, as well as the zoo. The Bamontes wrote that “some Spokane residents still remember the trauma of hearing gunshots ring out from the zoo, sealing the fate of those animals for which no homes had been found.”
The strange tale of Spokane’s only public zoo ended that cold January day, but signs of it continue to live on.
What is now called the Campbell House at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture kept a number of the zoo animals, but only after they’d been killed and stuffed. In 1955, the museum’s director, Florence Reed, said they had a stuffed polar bear, grizzly, cougar, elk, a kangaroo, a buffalo, bobcat and spotted fawn, as well as some birds, all from the zoo.
In 2016, the MAC featured an the exhibit “Fangs, Fur and Feathers: The Art of Animals”, with many old, taxidermied critters, many of them pulled out of storage, dusty and – perhaps – from the zoo. The museum could not confirm their origins for this article.
A 1968 Spokesman article about a “relatively small elk herd in northwestern Pend Oreille County” brought up another theory at the time. “There is some belief that the Sullivan Lake herd, estimated at about 150 animals, was established by elk from the old Manito Park zoo,” said the article, which was reporting on the Inland Empire Big Game Council’s request for 40 to 50 more Yellowstone elk to be added to the herd. The frisky ancestors of these northeastern Washington elk once lived in the Rose Garden.
For the curious visitor to Manito Park, there’s an outcropping of rock just behind the Park Bench Cafe, where visitors could buy peanuts to feed the monkeys. Just up a short, walkable rise, in the shadows of the basalt shelves, an old rusted hook is still embedded in the stone. Manito’s bear keepers would tether the big beasts to this hook while the pens were cleaned.
The bears are long gone, but the zoo remains.
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