by Eva Wells-Burton
From The Log, Volume 1 #2, Summer 2009
“Didn’t there used to be a zoo in Kendrick Park here in Sheridan?” was asked recently by a member of the Historical Society. “There certainly was!” I replied. “My dad was a zookeeper there at one time.” “Oh! Wonderful!” was the answer. “Would you write an account of the zoo?” So here I am, organizing the items I have gathered from past newspaper articles and personal recollections, hoping to bring back some memories to you.
The Zoo in Kendrick Park was started very soon after the land was donated to the city of Sheridan by John B. Kendrick in 1905. An item in the Sheridan Post on August 2, 1910, states that a warrant for $150 was… drawn in favor of Rudolph von Rovigno in payment for the two bears which were recently installed at the zoo in Pioneer Park. The first Park Superintendent was John D. Loucks, who was also overseer for the Zoo.
Other Zoo residents included wolves, coyotes, a badger, monkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs, owls, white rats, deer, antelope, peacocks, chickens, a porcupine, and goats. It is said that the chickens were there because the peacocks refused to set on their eggs, and a chicken hen would. In this way, the peacocks were propagated. By 1914, a number of exotic animals had been imported such as two alligators from Florida. What became of these animals is lost to history.
A 1939 Sheridan Press article boasted that the city’s 70 acre Kendrick Park—the name was changed from Pioneer Park in 1936—had the largest zoo in the state. One of the outstanding events in the Zoo was the birth of Major Sheridan, one of three lion cubs born to the resident pair, Conga and Congeta, on July 26, 1949. Evart Potts, zookeeper at the time, had a friendly relationship with Conga and Congeta. He discovered that there were three cubs, but very soon, one of the cubs died. Evart believed that Daddy Conga was responsible, so he went into the cage and retrieved all three cubs, two of which were still alive. Major Sheridan, however, turned out to be the only survivor. He weighed three pounds at birth, and it was necessary to feed him with a bottle which Evart instigated. He had to be bottle fed at short intervals, and Evart soon found that he hadn’t the time to be a surrogate mother and still take proper care of all the other animals.
Roy Scott of Story fondly remembers when Major Sheridan was born. Roy recalls,
I used to hurry right to the Zoo after school so I could help bottle feed the cub. I don’t remember that there was more than one to bottle feed so the other must have not been as hardy as Major Sheridan. To relieve Evart, arrangements were made with Mr. and Mrs. L. M. “Rusty” Rust at 428 West Works to feed Major for the first two weeks. I loved helping feed the little cub until the city of Sheridan gave him to Dr. J. E. Frank in Salt Lake City. They raised Major Sheridan as a house cat.
Roy further explained that the Franks brought Major Sheridan back to his birthplace in August 1950 when he was a bit over a year old. They were in a parade in Sheridan with the “pet cat” in the back seat of a car. They stopped and let Major Sheridan out of the car, and he went right to Roy, stood on his hind legs, and put his front feet on Roy’s shoulders. By this time, the lion weighed 125 pounds. It’s amazing how he remembered the boy who had nursed him when he was a wee cub. It was said that Major Sheridan allowed anyone to pet him. By 1950, Major Sheridan had attained wide fame as perhaps the world’s only “living room” lion. He soon became too big for a house pet, so the Franks gave the lion back to the Sheridan Zoo. Many people still fondly remember him and call recall hearing him roar clear across town.
Almost all of the animals stayed in their homes at the Sheridan Zoo until they died of old age including Conga and Congeta, the first adult lions and parents of Major Sheridan; and Maggie and Jiggs, the affectionately remembered monkeys. Major Sheridan spent his entire adult life in the Zoo here. He was the only large animal in the caged animal zoo that was born and died here in Sheridan.
Roy Scott remembers as a youngster,
I lived at the end of Smith Street and went to the swimming pool nearly every day. One day I stopped to look at the bison bull. He let out a bellow and came straight at me. That huge two tons of walking thunder hit the fence right in front of me before I could even move, and I was too scared to decorously describe. The fence didn’t look like it would stand another onslaught like that so I told the zookeeper. Eventually the fence was made more solid.
Roy further recalled that he got used to the zoo choir at night, so he could sleep. It seemed that a train whistle would bring the animals to life.
First, the wolves, I think the whole pack of them, would begin to howl, then the lions would join and that was a sign for the bears to tune up. By that time all the animals and birds were ready to complain and the chorus became a nightly lullaby that the Zoo neighbors had to outlast or become accustomed to in order to sleep.
Roy said he became accustomed to it.
During the more than half century that the Zoo existed, it was a full time job to take care of the animals in the Zoo. The animals had to be fed, their cages cleaned, their health maintained, and repair work done for maintenance of facilities. In 1968 the Sheridan Zoo was authorized to keep the animals they presently had, however, by the 1970s regulations considered keeping animals in small cages animal abuse and it was becoming impossible for the city to afford to keep the Zoo maintained and replenished.
When Tony Pelesky became Director of Public Works in Sheridan in the early 1970s, one of his assignments was to remove the last of the bears. Tony told me that the bear was given to Bear Country USA near Rapid City, SD. The bear was so big they had to find a special cage to hold him for the trip. According to Tony, after the bear died, Bear Country USA had it mounted and put on display with a plaque which said it was from Cody. “But they had it wrong,” Pelesky said. “That was our bear.” Another chore that Tony oversaw was the removal of the cages from the Zoo.
The only remaining Zoo residents are the bison and elk, which are kept in the pasture that extends up the steep hill on the north side of the Park. Tony Pelesky supplied information about the care of the bison and elk.
As the bison got up in years, the city would trade an older one to Vernon States, who raised disease free bison, for a younger one. This practice has kept the bison in the Park young and healthy. As the numbers of bison got to be more than 6, some were disposed of to Vernon States. Vernon is no longer in business so that practice is no longer used. The elk herd is replenished from the herd that the Game and Fish Commission owns in Sybille Game Preserve, near Wheatland, WY. The elk, therefore, belong to the State and are loaned to the City of Sheridan. Every other year the bull elk has to be replaced to prevent in-breeding. Some of the bulls have, as well, been brought from the herd in Jackson Hole. This practice also keeps the animals healthy.
With the exception of the elk and bison, Sheridan’s Zoo is a matter of history. To continue documenting accounts of the Zoo, the Sheridan County Memory Book Project is the perfect receptacle for your recollections and photographs. Call the Museum at 675-1150 to make an appointment to share your stories.
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